The business lessons from the masterminds who built and ran huge criminal empires

Paintings depicting late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar are on display at Lleras Park in Medellin, Colombia. Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Today’s modern business leader can pick up a few tips on strategy by studying big criminal organisations.

Vast empires created by criminal masterminds, mostly through the sale of unlawful drugs, needed good business minds to run them.

Among the skills needed were: managing risk; innovation; adaptability; specialisation; and influencing.

Author Sarah Bartholomeusz, the founder of the law firm You Legal, has analysed the success of some of the most notorious kingpins of the underworld.

Her book, Kingpin: Legal Lessons from the Underworld, dissects the organisational skills they needed to succeed.

“Despite their obvious differences, both illicit and legitimate businesses have to respond to similar economic conditions,” says Bartholomeusz.

“It’s for this reason that the corporate world can gain invaluable lessons by looking closely at the operations of the underworld.

“It has been argued that while legal businesses focus on maximising their profits, drug enterprises focus on minimising their risks. Innovation and adaptability, specialisation, and networking and influence: these core strategies emerged out of a need to manage risk.

“Both legal and illegal businesses face the challenges posed by competition, government intervention in the market, and the fickle consumer. However, kingpins had to devote resources to neutralising law enforcement to reduce risks to their business.”

These leaders had to turn to innovation, specialisation and networking to manage risk.

“While the illicit nature of their enterprises can’t be admired, they were undoubtedly successful — and the resulting insights from their successes can be applied by leaders to their own legal businesses,” she says.

Here’s Bartholomeusz’s analysis of some of the drug lords:


Frank Lucas was an American drug dealer who operated in Harlem in the ’60s and ’70s. He was known for his innovative smuggling methods, relying on introspection for his most ingenious ideas. He planned out every detail of his heroin operation, a technique he called “back tracking”. He would isolate himself in an empty room for weeks at a time to reflect on the various phases of his business.

Lucas would mentally perform each step of his operation to look for potential errors. He analysed his past transactions and used his experiences to modify and improve his strategies.

He hid heroin in the pallets underneath American servicemen’s coffins, which were loaded onto American military planes and transported from Southeast Asia to the United States. He is also believed to have smuggled heroin in furniture.

He is reported to be still alive, aged 86, but confined to a wheelchair.


In the early 1970s, Griselda Blanco and her second husband, Alberto Bravo, moved to New York City from Colombia and developed a successful cocaine enterprise.

Before their arrival, the Italian mafia largely controlled New York’s drug distribution. With a direct connection to Colombian cocaine, Blanco and Bravo soon captured a large share of the market.

Blanco specialised in distribution. Setting up cocaine networks for over two decades, Blanco worked for the Medellin Cartel as a key distributor. Known as the Godmother of Cocaine, Blanco was the first Colombian drug lord to export cocaine to the US.

In New York, Blanco and Bravo masqueraded as successful business people. Blanco recruited and trained young women to act as mules — a practice she is said to have pioneered to operate New York stash houses and transport money to Colombia. Money was laundered via small deposits made in New York, New Jersey and Colombian banks. Blanco also designed and created specialised women’s undergarments for smuggling.

Griselda , who was said to have invented the motorcycle ride-by killing, died in 2012 from two shots fired from a motorbike.


Pablo Escobar was a Colombian drug lord responsible for a majority of cocaine smuggling to the US at the peak of his cartel. Escobar specialised in planning, building and organising distribution routes for cocaine in Colombia. He controlled the entire distribution chain, from procurement of raw materials to the delivery of the product. Escobar owned fleets of airplanes, ships and trucks to transport his product.

Before trafficking in cocaine, Escobar worked as a petty street thief, smuggling contraband such as tobacco and liquor. Escobar soon realised he increased his risk by transporting large quantities of a product, and that he could make more money selling a suitcase full of cocaine than a truck full of tobacco and whiskey.

Escobar understood he couldn’t trust distribution to third parties and, accordingly, controlled all facets of his distribution chain. Escobar’s distribution chain was so efficient, even Escobar’s competitors hired him to take their products out of Colombia.

At the same time, he outsourced the exporting where he didn’t have expertise by using American pilots to fly his product out. Recruits included ex-military, commercial and private pilots, and in some cases, unlicensed aviators.

He died in 1993 from gunshot wounds. At his funeral, there were 25,000 mourners.


Christopher Michael Coke, also known as Dudus, was a Jamaican drug lord and leader of a gang called the Shower Posse, which was founded by his father. After his father’s death at the age of 23, Dudus inherited a dual role as leader of both the Shower Posse and Tivoli Gardens community where he was based. Dudus fought off and defeated ambitious rival gangs hoping to take advantage of the recent change in leadership.

In the Tivoli Gardens community, where there is a history of extreme poverty, Dudus created employment and developed community programs to help the children and other community members. Residents went to him for tuition, legal aid, business loans, food and medicine. He had so much local support that Jamaican police were unable to enter Tivoli Gardens without the community’s consent. And just like his father before him, Dudus received protection from the Jamaican Labour Party.

He is currently serving 23 years in a US Federal prison for drug trafficking.


Sa was the Commander-in-Chief of the Mong Tai Army (MTA), a militia fighting to liberate the Shan minority in Myanmar. Sa declared himself a freedom fighter, not a drug dealer, arguing that he supported his army with tax revenues collected from opium traders moving through Shan territory but did not directly profit from drug trafficking himself.

US drug officials contend Sa organised farmers to grow opium and operated or franchised 15 to 20 heroin refining laboratories near the Thai-Myanmar border. Sa reportedly made cash payments to Thai border police to guarantee his heroin shipments crossed the Thai border without being seized, and then distributed the drug using a sophisticated commercial network.

He died in 2007 aged 73.

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