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What is a Drug Lord?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A drug lord is a person who heads an organization that supplies, distributes, and produces illegal drugs. In addition to involvement in the drug trafficking trade, the organization may also engage in activities like human trafficking, prostitution, contract killing, and so forth, depending on its size and nature. Also known as kingpins or drug barons in regional slang, drug lords are notoriously challenging to bring to justice because they usually structure their organizations with care and avoid being in situations where law enforcement authorities can directly link them with illegal activity.

Some of the most notorious drug lords of the 20th century came from South America, particularly nations like Colombia, where the drug trade was highly active. Chinese and other Asian drug trafficking organizations, particularly in regions like Afghanistan, can also be quite large and may have influential heads. Substances a drug lord may deal in can include cocaine, heroin, opium, and marijuana.

Typically, drug lords break their organizations up into smaller groups. Underlings head these groups, acting as cells, and the actual processing and handling of drugs is the responsibility of people at the bottom of the hierarchy. The drug lord is never in possession of the drugs, and neither are the other high ranking people in the organization. This structure forces creativity on the part of law enforcement if they want to break apart the entire organization.

Simply going after people like runners and dealers on the ground will not address the problem, as they are readily replaceable. Instead, agencies need informers on the inside, or agents working undercover to penetrate the organization, to collect evidence they can use against the higher echelons of the group, including the drug lord. The layers of dealing around the drug lord can make this difficult. Since most high-ranking people have access to large private security forces and money they can use to escape to other countries, they can be very difficult to apprehend if law enforcement agencies do manage to pull together enough evidence.

Investigation into drug lords can also be complicated by corruption within the government. Bribes to members of law enforcement agencies are not uncommon. Agencies can use a variety of techniques to reduce susceptibility to bribes, including the formation of traveling drug task forces to create moving law enforcement targets, making it difficult for criminals to decide who to bribe. They may also call for assistance from the national military, providing useful backup for arrests and seizures, as well as creating a source of personnel who are less likely to be compromised by bribes, intimidation, and other tactics.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Inaventu — On Jul 17, 2014

I remember seeing news stories about famous drug lords getting arrested, but I never knew how difficult it really was. These top drug lords know more about international law than almost everybody else. They know how to keep their distance from the drugs themselves, and they never get addicted to their own products. It's a business, like anything else.

By Ruggercat68 — On Jul 16, 2014

One of my co-workers immigrated from Mexico and I asked him about Mexican drug lords. He told me they were no joke. If you lived in his region, you never used a drug lord's name in public, because you never knew if someone nearby was working for him. It was all about respect and fear. Nobody ever met the top drug lords, but he said there would always be a subordinate who laundered money in town or sold drugs on the streets as a side business.

He said he would be afraid for his safety whenever one of the most wanted drug lords was finally arrested. It might have looked like a victory in the United States, but in Mexico it often meant more violence as different people tried to take over the business.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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