We all know that crime doesn’t pay, well usually anyway. For a select few however, a life of criminality leads to incredible riches and power, but with that success comes the risk of an early death or incarceration. In this top 10 list we’ll look at the ten richest crime lords, mafia members and drug dealers throughout history to see which of them was the richest of all, and whether any of them managed to live long enough to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.
#10 – Meyer Lansky – $400 Million
Meyer Lansky, born Meier Suchlowlansk, was known as the Mob’s accountant and was a major figure in organized crime in the United States for almost half a century. Born in 1902 Lansky built up a gambling empire that encompassed the globe. He owned stakes in gambling establishments everywhere from Las Vegas to London and was known to be influential with the Italian Mafia although he was actually a member of the Jewish Mafia. He was instrumental in consolidating the power of the criminal underworld throughout the 1960’s, although he was personally never successfully prosecuted for anything more serious than illegal gambling. After spending several years in exile in Cuba he spent his last years living quietly in Miami Beach where he died in 1983 aged 80. Although the FBI believed he was worth up to $300 million at the time of his death, on paper he was worth virtually nothing, with an estate valued at less than $10,000. Despite years investigating his finances, the authorities were unable to ever find any of his vast fortune.
#9 – Griselda Blanco – $500 Million
Griselda Blanco came from humble beginnings in the Colombian city of Cartagena, but she ended up being one of the most feared, and richest crime bosses of the 20th century. Griselda’s sociopathic tendencies showed at an early age, when she attempted to kidnap a child for ransom, but ended up shooting the victim in the head. She emigrated to the US in the mid 1970’s and became a major player in the flow of drugs from Colombia to the United States. She eventually moved to Miami, where she became known as ‘The Godmother’, not only due to her ruthless efficiency in business, but also due to suspicions that she was instrumental in the untimely deaths of her three husbands. Griselda is believed to have ordered more than 200 assassinations during her career, which continued after her arrest in 1985. Griselda’s incarceration didn’t inhibit her effectiveness as a drug lord and she continued to operate her empire from prison. After being extradited back to Colombia in 2007 she lived her last few years off the radar until her violent death in 2012 at the age of 69, at the hands of an unknown gunman.
#8 – Anthony Salerno – $600 Million
Think of a stereotypical mafia gangster from decades past and you’ll probably conjure up an image of a cigar chomping overweight guy wearing a fedora, give him a name like ‘Fat Tony’ and you’ve checked all those stereotype boxes. But the real-life figure behind those stereotypes was Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno, the inspiration behind The Simpsons character and the king of the New York underworld throughout the 1970’s. Born in 1911 in East Harlem, Anthony Salerno worked his way up to become the head of the Genovese crime family and was estimated in a 1986 Fortune magazine article to be earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year. At the time he owned a home in Miami Beach, an apartment in Gramercy Park and a 100 acre estate in Rhinebeck, New York, but unfortunately for Anthony the law had caught up with him, and he spent most of the remainder of his life in prison, until his death in 1992 at the age of 80.
#7 – Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman – $1 Billion
Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera was born in the Mexican Pacific coastal state of Sinaloa in 1954, or possibly 1957, nobody is entirely sure. He rose to become the head of the Sinaloa Cartel and is responsible for the importation of more drugs into the United States than anyone else in history. He was captured in Guatemala in 1993 and sentenced to 20 years for murder, a sentence he began serving in Mexico, until his escape in 2001 after bribing his guards. Guzman was recaptured in 2014 but once again his power and influence enabled him to escape, this time barely a year later and in a spectacular fashion that hit headlines around the World. Guzman arranged for a tunnel over a mile long to be built and escaped using it in July 2015. Recaptured once again by Mexican marines in January 2016 Guzman has now been extradited to the United States where he currently awaits trial for criminal charges related to his leadership of the huge criminal network.
#6 – Al Capone – $1.3 Billion (Adjusted for inflation)
Al Capone is probably the most iconic gangster on our list. His wealth, influence and power during the prohibition years of the early 1920’s in Chicago was incredible. Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899 and moved to Chicago in his early twenties. After working as a bouncer for a while he became the bodyguard of bootlegger Johnny Torrio, who later handed over control of his organization to Capone after an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Capone expanded the operation, usually by increasingly violent means and enjoyed a popular public image, often being cheered when he appeared at sporting events, and he also enjoyed a mutually profitable friendship with Chicago mayor William Hale that left him untouchable, and profiting to the tune of over a hundred million dollars a year. Capone made regular generous donations to charities and was seen as a modern day Robin Hood by many, but his popularity wavered after the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and led to several newspapers labelling him ‘Public Enemy No. 1’. Eventually Capone was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and spent his remaining years in prison until his death in 1947 at the age of 48.
#5 – Susumu Ishii – $1.5 Billion
Feared and respected in equal measure, the Japanese Yakuza are known for their brutality, as well as for their outwardly respectable appearance. Susumu Ishii was the leader of the powerful Inagawa-Kai gang and was responsible for one of the biggest financial scandals in Japan after the extent to which he had influenced businesses came to light. Susumu retired after a brain hemorrhage in 1990 and died the following year, but his death contributed to the Japanese economic crisis at the time with investigations into his influence and reach into legitimate businesses. Ishii was involved in various types of conventional organized crime businesses such as drugs and prostitution, but made most of his fortune from banking deals, real estate scams and loans, and he often involved large respected corporations through means of coercion or outright threats.
#4 – Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas – $2.7 Billion
Carlos Lehder is a co-founder of the Medellin cartel and amassed a huge personal fortune during the 1980’s and 1990’s through his expansion of the illegal flow of drugs into the United States. Born in Armenia, Colombia in 1949 he started stealing cars for his families semi-legitimate used car lot but he got arrested for car theft in Connecticut. While serving time in a low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut he met George Jung, as portrayed by Johnny Depp in ‘Blow’, and there the two hatched a plan to import cocaine into the US using planes upon their release. Carlos used his jail time to his full advantage, constantly learning as much as possible about smuggling from prison mates and even making extensive notes. When he was released Carlos soon put all that studying to good use, he and Jung used mules to smuggle cocaine in from Antigua until they had enough money to buy a plane, at which point the smuggling operation drastically grew and Carlos began flying in the drugs from The Bahamas. By the late 1970’s Carlos had enough cash to buy a small Island, named ‘Norman’s Cay’, which he seized control of by intimidating, threatening and even allegedly murdering the 100 or so previous residents until he was the sole owner of the entire island, at which point he used it’s small airstrip to import huge quantities of cocaine into America with impunity, having already heavily bribed the Bahamian authorities to ensure they didn’t interfere with his criminal activities. NBC aired a documentary in 1983 exposing Lehders operation at the Island and his influence with the Bahamians and as a result the Bahamian government was forced to act, freezing Lehder’s bank accounts and assets and leaving him virtually bankrupt. Eventually Carlos was captured and extradited to the United States in 1987. He received a hefty 55 year sentence for drug trafficking, which he is still serving to this day.
#3 – Viktor Bout – $6 Billion
Although not technically a member of the mafia or involved in the supply of drugs no list of master criminals should really exclude Viktor Bout. Viktor was born in the former Soviet state of Tajik in 1967 and was a translator for the Soviet military before started his own air transport company. Eventually he began smuggling arms into various African civil wars. He later became the primary supplier of arms into Africa from Russia and Eastern Europe before eventually being arrested in Thailand in 2008. In 2010 he was extradited to the United States and convicted of providing aid to a terrorist organization. Although now serving a 25 year sentence Viktor’s wealth is believed to be at least $6 Billion.
#2 – Pablo Escobar – $25 Billion
Pablo Escobar’s riches are the stuff of legend, more down-to-earth than his Medellin cartel colleague Carlos Lehder, Pablo Escobar amassed a huge fortune, far more in fact than he knew what to do with. He made so much money from the insanely lucrative cocaine trade that he took to burying large stashes of unlaundered cash throughout the Colombian countryside, and he would casually write off $1 billion a year that was rendered unusable by floods or animals. Pablo was another master criminal that was viewed as something of a modern day Robin Hood, his generosity in his native Colombia was legendary and entire neighborhoods are to this day named after him. His reign of power at the helm of the Medellin Cartel was peppered with violence and brutality, and his own life ended in 1993 in a hail of bullets after he attempted to escape from police across rooftops. Escobar was aged just 44 when he died, and the exact amount of his obscene wealth remains something of a mystery. It’s estimated that his income was in excess of $21 billion annually, yet most of that has long since vanished, occasionally the Colombian authorities dig up a few billion dollars in a field somewhere, but the vast wealth of possibly the richest drug lord ever has seeped back into the criminal underworld.
#1 – Amado Carrillo Fuentes – $25 Billion
With more than a fleeting similarity to Die Hard Villain Hans Gruber, Amado Carrillo had all the hallmarks of a classic bad-guy. He took control of the Juarez Cartel after the innovative promotion strategy of killing his boss. He expanded the vast drug smuggling empire rapidly and efficiently and bought so many planes for the fleet that he was known as the Lord of the skies. Born in 1956 in Sinaloa, Mexico he managed to evade capture or incarceration for his entire life, but he died in 1997 aged just 44 while being pursued by Mexican and US officials. He was undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance at the time at a hospital in Mexico City when complications from surgery arose and eventually proved fatal. There are conspiracy theories that suggest Amado may have faked his own death, not helped by the subsequent strange deaths of the two surgeons who operated on him, who were later found encased in steel drums in a condition that indicated they had been tortured before death.