They say crime doesn’t pay, but over time, gangsters have proven otherwise.
In the early part of the 20th century, a gangster’s profit was measured by how much liquor sales they acquired during prohibition. Since then, the narrative of gangsters transitioned into gambling and drug trafficking. In the seventies, gangsters made a fortune off heroin, in the eighties, cocaine, and today, marijuana.
Gangsters and their stories have been revisited through music, films, and more. Recently, Netflix scored another hit with viewers with the original series Narcos. The first season follows the dealings of the world’s biggest drug lord, Pablo Escobar.
While it is difficult to determine the exact wealth of these masterminds, here are some of the richest and most dangerous gangsters of all time.
Frank Lucas ($52 Million)
Frank Lucas capitalized off the heroin trade in the 1960s and 1970s by using an East Asian connection during the Vietnam War. His method cut off the Italian mafia, who controlled the trade in Harlem, his home at the time. Originally from North Carolina, Lucas employed members of his family to take over the heroin trade in New York and New Jersey. Lucas later claimed to have sold one million dollars worth of heroin a day. His story was told in the 2007 film American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington.
Joseph Kennedy Sr. ($300 Million)
Joseph Kennedy is the patriarch of one of America’s most powerful and prestigious families. One of his sons became president, another district attorney and another, a senator. At his peak, Kennedy was one of the richest men in America, with too many conspiracies to count behind his name. Kennedy was already in the liquor business before prohibition, but according sources, became a bootlegger with ties to the New York and Chicago underworlds. Other theories claim Kennedy tipped off voters, rigged elections, and employed his gangster friends to scare politicians. Historian and biographer David Nasaw broke down some of these theories in the video above.
Meyer Lansky ($600 Million)
Lansky was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who made a fortune off gambling, above and below the table. Lansky joined gangsters Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Ben “Bugsy” Siegel to run the organized crime mob called Murder Inc. Lansky was later indicted for tax evasion and fled to Israel. He returned to the U.S. to face charges and was acquitted in 1974. He died a free man in Miami at 83-years-old.
Al Capone ($1.3 Billion)
Al Capone is perhaps the most notorious gangster of all time, and was also one of the richest. During prohibition, Capone controlled the illegal alcohol, prostitution, and gambling rackets in Chicago, which brought in $100 million a year. Capone’s money allowed him to bribe police officials, judges, and even the Mayor of Chicago. Unfortunately, he could not bribe the IRS, who convicted him of tax evasion in 1932 and sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
Griselda Blanco ($2 Billion)
Griselda Blanco, also known as the “Black Widow” or “The Cocaine Queen Of Miami,” was a drug lord for the Colombian Medellín cartel. Before Escobar’s reign, she controlled the cocaine trade through violence and intimidation–making $80 million a month. After serving only 10 years in jail on drug charges, Blanco returned to her native Colombia in 2012. The same year, she was gunned down by a contracted killer.
Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno (Multi-Billionaire)
In the 1960s, Italian mobster “Fat Tony” Salerno made his millions running the numbers and drugs racket in East Harlem after other Italian mobsters left the area. With the exit of his competitors (due to the influx of Blacks and Latinos) “Fat Tony” was easily making tens of millions of dollars. As the front man for the Genovese crime family, Salerno was named America’s Top Gangster by Fortune Magazine in 1986, thanks to his wealth of more than one billion dollars and influence. His likeness lives on ironically on The Simpsons, with the character Marion Anthony “Fat Tony” D’Amico.
Carlos Lehder ($2.7 Billion)
Lehder was one of the founders of the Colombian Medellín Cartel. While in prison, Lehder met Boston-born drug trafficker, George Jung, who helped him distribute cocaine from Colombia into the United States. Cocaine made Lehder so rich, that he owned his own island in the Bahamas and offered to pay off Colombia’s debt–twice. Lehder was later extradited to the United States and sentenced to life in prison. His sentence was reduced after he agreed to testify against former Panamanian President Manuel Noriega in 1992.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera ($5 Billion)
“El Chapo” is one of Mexico’s most infamous drug lords; he controls the majority of cocaine and marijuana movements in several countries all over the world. His doings have also influenced crime in Chicago, where he has connections to Larry Hoover’s Gangster Disciples. He is also the head of the Sinaloa cartel, which smuggles in billion of dollars from Colombia through Mexico and into the United States. Guzman became rich enough to make Forbes list of 1,000 wealthiest people in the world, as well as their top 60 most powerful people in the world. El Chapo has escaped prison twice and is currently on the run from the FBI.
Amado Carrillo Fuentes ($25 Billion)
Amado Carrillo Fuentes was the head of the Mexican Juarez Cartel. He was known as “Lord Of The Skies” due to his private fleet of planes, which were used to import cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. Officials called him the most powerful drug trafficker of his era. He died while undergoing plastic surgery to alter his appearance in 1997.
Pablo Escobar ($30 Billion)
Escobar is perhaps the most notorious drug lord of the modern era. He ran the Medellín Cartel, which imported billions of dollars of cocaine into the United States. Pablo’s money brought him great power, as he was able to bribe officials or have them killed. In 1993, Escobar was killed by Colombian forces with U.S. assistance after he escaped from a Colombian prison. Audiences are currently looking back on Escobar’s story on Netflix’s original series, Narcos.
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