There’s no doubt that drug trafficking is a profitable business. In the U.S. alone, people spend over $150 billion a year in drugs ranging from basic cannabis to cocaine, heroin, and everything in between (per Rand). In fact, the U.S. has for decades been the largest marketplace in the world for illegal drugs, according to PBS. This means drug cartels and trafficking rings from around the world send their products into the country — though Mexico and Central American nations have a geographical advantage, as it’s just easier to drive through the borders than fly in a few tons of drugs every week.
With drugs being produced for as little as $1,500 dollars per kilo (cocaine) and then sold in the US for $66,000 a kilo, it’s no surprise drug lords often become billionaires very quickly (per PBS). The problem with figuring the net worth of drug lords is that while they’re still alive and out of jail, their money is probably well hidden somewhere. According to PBS, the market was at its peak in the 1980s, which explains why some of the richest drug traffickers ever lived (and often died) in that decade.
The richest drug lord ever died in 1993
At the height of his power in the 1980s, Pablo Escobar was one of the richest people in the world. He had a reported net worth of $25 billion and was listed on Forbes’ Billionaires list several years in a row. When he was first added to the list in 1981, his net worth was estimated at $2 billion. He eventually became listed as the seventh-richest man in the world and he’s now considered the richest drug lord in history (via Forbes).
At one point, the Medellin cartel supplied 80% of the cocaine used in the US and smuggled 15 tons of it into the country every single day. During that time, the Cartel was earning $420 million a week, according to Business Insider.
Escobar spent his money on lavish parties, a 7,000-acre estate that cost him $63 million, exotic animals, and a classic car collection. But Escobar made so much money, he couldn’t find ways to spend it all, so he hid much of it in warehouses, underground bunkers, and caves – and part of it was eventually eaten by rats or destroyed by the elements (per Britannica).
After Escobar died, much of his money went to the Colombian government, but rumor has it a big part of Escobar’s fortune is still hidden somewhere. In September 2020, one of Escobar’s nephews found a bag with $18 million hidden within the walls of a home the drug lord once owned, as reported by BBC News.
After Escobar's death, the power and the money shifted to Mexico
Today, Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel is considered one of the largest, most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world, responsible for 25 percent of all illegal drugs entering the US. Its former leader, Joaquin Guzman Loera, AKA El Chapo, has been in Colorado’s Supermax prison since 2019. Although he’d been arrested (and escaped prison several times) in Mexico before, his net worth remained untouchable until he was extradited to the US (via CNN).
El Chapo was once part of Forbes‘ list of most powerful people in the world, where the cartel was mentioned as having revenues of over $3 billion a year. While this amount might sound meager compared to Escobar’s enormous net worth, it’s still no small change.
Since he’s been in prison, US prosecutors are asking Guzman to forfeit more than $12.6 billion, which they insist is, at a minimum, the amount he’s earned from his narcotics-related crimes (per CNN). Guzman’s lawyers, however, deny that their client has that much money, adding none of it has ever been found and there’s no way to prove that he earned that much. While Escobar was well-known for hiding his money in buildings and vaults, there’s no information on where Guzman’s money ended up.
According to Insight Crime, one of the theories is that much of his money is now under the control of his successor, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who once worked in partnership with El Chapo.
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