How Amado Carrillo Fuentes Became Mexico’s Richest Drug Trafficker And The ‘Lord Of The Skies’

After amassing a multibillion-dollar empire as the head of the Juárez Cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes died during a botched plastic surgery in 1997.

As the legend goes, Amado Carrillo Fuentes left his small village around the age of 12, telling people: “I won’t come back until I’m rich.” He kept his word. Carrillo went on to build a multibillion-dollar empire and become Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficker.

The head of the Juarez cartel, Carrillo earned the nickname “Lord of the Skies” because he used private planes to smuggle cocaine. He filled the pockets of Mexican officials to keep them looking the other way and leveraged the threat of violence to keep people in line.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes

La Reforma ArchivesThe powerful drug lord, Amado Carrillo Fuentes.

As his power grew, however, so did scrutiny from Mexican and U.S. officials. Carrillo fatefully decided to undergo plastic surgery to evade detection. But instead of leaving the hospital a new man, Amado Carrillo Fuentes died in his recovery room.

The Rise Of The Powerful ‘Lord Of The Skies’

Born in the small village of Guamuchilito in Sinaloa, Mexico, on Dec. 17, 1956, Amado Carrillo Fuentes grew up surrounded by agriculture — and drugs. Though his father was a modest landowner, his uncle, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, led the Guadalajara cartel.

Around the age of 12, Carrillo announced that he was leaving his parents and 10 siblings to make it rich. He traveled to Chihuahua with nothing more than a sixth-grade education and began to learn the ins and outs of drug trafficking from his uncle. Ernesto eventually put his nephew in charge of overseeing drug shipments.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes Juarez Cartel

Public DomainAmado Carrillo Fuentes (center) with other members of the Juarez cartel in the 1980s.

From there, Carrillo shot up the ladder. He consolidated his power in 1993 by assassinating his friend and former boss, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo. With Aguilar dead, Carrillo took over his Juarez cartel. He soon earned the nickname “Lord of the Skies” because he chartered planes to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to the U.S.–Mexico border.

For the most part, however, Carrillo was careful to stay out of the limelight — even as his power and fortune grew. After his death, the Washington Post called Carrillo one of Mexico’s “most mysterious men.”

“He lived discreetly – no wild shootouts, no late-night disco hopping,” the paper wrote. “Few pictures of him appeared in newspapers or on television. He was from a new breed, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration liked to say, a low-profile kingpin who behaved like a businessman.”

Amado Carrillo Fuentes seems to have viewed drug trafficking as exactly that — a business. To a priest who encouraged him to leave his life of crime, Carrillo demurred. “I can’t retire,” he told the priest. “I have to keep going. I have to support thousands of families.”

Behind the scenes, though, Carrillo was very much a drug lord. He amassed a net worth of $25 billion — a fortune second only to Pablo Escobar’s — ordered some 400 murders, and enjoyed torturing his victims.

Carrillo also held influence over Mexican government officials, whom he paid to turn a blind eye to his activities and take out his rivals. By targeting his competition, they could claim to be anti-drug while leaving the Lord of the Skies alone. Even Mexico’s top anti-drug official was in Carrillo’s pocket.

Regardless, his activity drew attention from law enforcement. In 1997, he barely evaded capture when Mexican agents raided his sister’s wedding. The Lord of the Skies had grown, in the words of a senior U.S. drug official, “too big, too notorious.”

Well-aware of his own notoriety, Amado Carrillo Fuentes decided to take a drastic step. As he mused about moving his operation to Chile, Carrillo resolved to undergo severe plastic surgery to change his appearance.

The Surgery That Killed Amado Carrillo Fuentes

On July 4, 1997, Amado Carrillo Fuentes checked into a private Mexico City clinic under the alias Antonio Flores Montes. For eight hours, he underwent surgery to drastically alter his face and remove 3.5 gallons of fat from his body.

At first, it seemed that the procedure had gone off without a hitch. Nurses wheeled Carrillo to Room 407 in the Santa Monica hospital that evening and left him to recover. But a doctor doing rounds early the next morning found Carrillo deceased in bed. The drug lord was 42 years old.

After confirming Carrillo’s identity via fingerprints, the D.E.A. and the U.S. government announced that Amado Carrillo Fuentes had died of a heart attack. Their announcement caused ripples of shock — and disbelief. Many believed that Carrillo had faked his death and skipped town.

To counter this idea, officials released a gruesome photo of Amado Carrillo Fuentes’ corpse at his funeral. But rather than tame the rumors that he’d faked his death, the photo inflamed them.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes Corpse

OMAR TORRES/AFP via Getty ImagesAmado Carrillo Fuentes in a Mexico City morgue on July 7, 1997.

“Those aren’t his hands,” an unconvinced barber told a journalist from The Los Angeles Times, after seeing the photograph of Amado Carrillo Fuentes in a newspaper. “Those are the hands of a classical pianist.”

Carrillo’s cousin gave later credence to the rumors that Amado Carrillo Fuentes’ death was faked when he declared, after the drug lord’s funeral, “Amado is fine. He is alive.”

Carrillo’s cousin went on, “He had surgery and also had surgery practiced on some poor unfortunate person to make everybody believe it was him, including the authorities.”

American agents vehemently denied that Carrillo had slipped through their fingers. “The rumor [that Carrillo is alive] has as much credibility as the millions of sightings of the late Elvis Presley,” the D.E.A. said in a statement.

Indeed, allies of Amado Carrillo Fuentes didn’t act as if he had simply skipped town. Four months after his death, the three doctors responsible for his surgery were found in steel barrels along the side of a highway.

They had been partially encased in cement before someone had ripped out their fingernails, burned them, and killed them. Two doctors had cables still wrapped around their necks; the third had been shot.

Further muddying the waters, the doctors were later charged with murder. Mariano Herran Salvatti, the head of Mexico’s anti-drug agency, said at the time that that the doctors had “with malice and with the intention of taking [Carrillo’s] life… applied a combination of medicines that resulted in the death of the trafficker.”

The Aftermath Of Amado Carrillo Fuentes’ Death

The sudden death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes left a power vacuum. After the botched surgery, his top lieutenants battled each other to fill his shoes, as his old rivals fought to supplant the powerful Juarez cartel.

Out of the fray, Carrillo’s younger brother Vicente Carrillo Fuentes — called “The Viceroy” — seized power. But he couldn’t stop the cartel’s decline. Battered by the powerful Sinaloa cartel, led by El Chapo, the Juarez cartel suffered a prolonged slump, capped off by Vincente’s arrest in 2014.

As for the Lord of the Skies himself? He’s enjoyed an odd, second life as a character on Netflix’s Narcos, played by José María Yazpik.

But outside of the world of television, says the D.E.A., Fuentes is gone — dead. He may have escaped “earthly justice,” noted D.E.A. administrator Thomas A. Constantine, but he is “sure there is a special place in hell for those like him who have destroyed countless lives and devastated families on both sides of the border.”

That is, unless he did slip away under cover of night with a new face, a new name, and the determination to operate forevermore from the shadows.

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