Most people’s knee-jerk reaction to a drug lord – also called a baron or kingpin – is probably similar to how we’d view someone who committed murder, or at the very least manslaughter, and got away with it. Drug lords control entire networks of people involved in the illegal drug trade, but they rarely are in possession of illegal substances themselves, preferring to let their underlings get their hands dirty. Many people actually advocate holding drug dealers responsible for overdose deaths, and in fact there are statutes in United States law under which the death penalty can be sought for drug-related murders.

Despite all this, some drug lords have attained folk hero status, like modern day Robin Hoods, rising from nothing and transforming into powerful men who give back to their communities. Consider the case of Frank Lucas, a drug trafficker who operated out of Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I 2007, Hollywood made a movie about his life called American Gangster, in which he was played by Denzel Washington. In the movie, he’s part villain and part hero, a man who was born into poverty yet managed to wrest control of the drug trade away from the Mafia and make himself a millionaire in the process. Some see him as a figure of black empowerment.

Another example is Pablo Escobar, who started off as a drug smuggler, enforcer, and bodyguard, and eventually moved his way up to a billionaire with his own cocaine business. He grew up in the poor town of Medellin, Columbia, and after amassing his wealth he successfully ran for public office there. He built houses for the poor, erected soccer fields, and established a zoo for the public. Many people in Medellin view him as a savior, someone who helped their town rise from the depths of poverty.


What some people might forget – or ignore – is the many lives taken as a result of these criminal enterprises. Escobar killed over 100 people when he bombed a Columbian passenger plane in 1989. He planned the bombing in an attempt to kill César Augusto Gaviria Trujillo, who was a presidential candidate in the 1990 elections. It turns out that Gaviria wasn’t even on board.

Is it wrong to view these men with a certain amount of hero worship? They were all but gods to the people who benefited from their enterprises, but one look at the bloodshed it takes to rise to the top of a drug cartel should be enough to dull the shine. Certainly, we all enjoy the Robin Hood story, and though he’s technically a criminal he is the hero of the tale. He was giving back to his peers and dealing with the corrupt in the process, much like some would argue Escobar did, but what people who attribute folk hero status to drug lords like to forget is that Robin Hood didn’t slaughter hundreds of innocent people along the way. Whether you agree that drug dealers should be held accountable for drug deaths or not there’s no denying lives lost to violence or snuffed out on the journey to power.

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