Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo

Meet Felix Gallardo, ‘The Bill Gates Of Cocaine’ Who Made Mexico A Narcotrafficking Capital

Published January 22, 2020
Updated March 25, 2020

"The Godfather" of Mexican cocaine, Félix Gallardo spent 18 years growing his narcotics empire. But the brutal murder of an undercover DEA agent who infiltrated his cartel would be his demise.

He’s been hailed “The Bill Gates of Cocaine” and fascinated many for his complex depiction in Netflix’s drug drama, Narcos: Mexico. But Félix Gallardo is far from innocent. “El Padrino” or “The Godfather” has written as much in his own prison diary, published by Gatopardo magazine in 2009 under the headline “Diaries of the Boss of Bosses.”

As a former leader of the Guadalajara Cartel, Gallardo wrote openly about trafficking cocaine, marijuana, and heroin, as well as recounted the day of his capture by Mexican authorities. With a tinge of nostalgia, he even referred to himself as one of the “old capos.” But he denied any part in the brutal murder and torture of DEA agent Kiki Camarena, the crime for which he is still currently in prison.

In Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, Félix Gallardo’s transformation into a ruthless drug dealer seems almost accidental. In reality, the Guadalajara Cartel leader was the “boss of the bosses” whose eventual arrest triggered a massive drug war.

The Making Of “El Padrino” Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo

To Gallardo, the cartel appeared to be a ticket from poverty to power.

In his diary, Felix Gallardo is not all cartels and cocaine. He recalled in earnest his childhood in poverty and the general lack of resources and upward mobility that were available to Mexican nationals like him and his family.

Danger In Guadalajara Sign

Brent Clingman/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty ImagesThis billboard along Highway 111 was put up by friends of slain DEA agent Enrique Camarena.

“Today, the violence in the cities needs a program of national reconciliation,” he wrote. “There needs to be a reconstruction of villages and ranches to make them self-sufficient. There needs to be assembly plants and credit at low interest, incentives for cattle and schools.” Perhaps it was this destitution and desperation that led him to crime.

Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo was born in 1946 on a ranch in Sinaloa, Mexico, a state in Northwestern Mexico. He joined the police force at 17 and started working for the government as a Mexican Federal Judicial Police agent.

Gallardo’s department was famously corrupt and perhaps desperate to make money and find stability following a childhood of destitution, Gallardo turned to the narcos.

While working as a bodyguard for Sinaloa governor Leopoldo Sánchez Celis, Gallardo met Pedro Áviles Perez, another bodyguard to the governor and a known drug smuggler.

Áviles recruited Gallardo for his marijuana and heroin enterprise. When he died in a shoot-out with police in 1978, Gallardo took over and consolidated Mexico’s drug trafficking system under a single operation: the Guadalajara Cartel.

Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo became known as “El Padrino, “The Godfather,” of it all.

Gallardo’s Success With The Guadalajara Cartel

By the 1980s, Gallardo and his associates Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo had a monopoly on Mexico’s drug trafficking system.

Included in their loot was the 1,344-acre Rancho Búfalo marijuana plantation, which produced around $8 billion in product a year.

The business was good and so Gallardo decided to expand. He partnered with the Cali and Medellin cartels of Colombia to export his products to Tijuana.

Caro Quintero Cell

Wikimedia CommonsCaro Quintero during a 2016 interview in Mexico.

Though Narcos: Mexico depicts a crossover meeting between Gallardo and Pablo Escobar, it is extremely unlikely that this actually would have happened, according to experts.

It only helped that the Mexican DFS (or Direcci’on Federal de Seguridad) intelligence agency protected the Guadalaraja cartel.

As long as Gallardo paid the right people, a ring of corruption kept his team out of jail and cartel operations safe from scrutiny. That is until the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar brought the cartel under bloody scrutiny.

The Killing Of Kiki Camarena

On Feb. 7, 1985, a group of corrupt Mexican officials kidnapped DEA agent Kiki Camarena, who had infiltrated the Guadalajara cartel incognito, in broad daylight. His abduction was in retaliation for the destruction of Rancho Búfalo, which Mexican soldiers were able to find thanks to the agent’s surveillance network.

A month later, the DEA found Camarena’s badly beaten remains 70 miles outside of Guadalajara, Mexico. His skull, jaw, nose, cheekbones, and windpipe were crushed, his ribs were broken, and a hole was drilled into his head.

“I was taken to the DEA,” Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo wrote. “I greeted them and they wanted to talk. I only answered that I had no involvement in the Camarena case and I said, ‘You said a madman would do it and I am not mad. I am deeply sorry for the loss of your agent.'”

Enrique Camarena

Wikimedia CommonsThe brutal murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar triggered an all-out war between the DEA and the Mexican cartel.

Killing a DEA agent was bad for business, and Gallardo famously chose business over brutality. As the boss of cartel bosses in Mexico, he did not want to jeopardize his drug empire.

In audio recordings of his murder released in 1988, several men are heard interrogating Camarena about the DEA’s surveillance work. Kiki Camarena’s death brought the full wrath of the DEA down on the Guadalajara Cartel.

The search launched to find those responsible for his murder, known as Operation Leyenda, was the largest ever undertaken in the DEA’s history. But the mission brought about more questions than answers.

Most cartel informants believed Gallardo ordered Camarena’s capture, but that it was Quintero who perhaps gave the order for his torture and death. Additionally, a former DEA agent named Hector Berrellez found that the CIA may have also known about the plan to kidnap Camarena but chose not to intervene.

“By September 1989, he learned from witnesses of CIA involvement. By April 1994, Berrellez was removed from the case,” wrote investigative Charles Bowden in an article about Camarena’s death that took 16 years to write.

“Two years later he retired with his career in ruins. In October 2013, he goes public with his allegations about the CIA.”

It did not take long before cartel members Quintero and Carillo were arrested. Gallardo’s political connections kept him safe until 1989 when Mexican authorities arrested him from his home, still in a bathrobe.

Gallardo Led By Mexican Police

FlickrFélix Gallardo now is serving 37 years, and despite appeals, remains in Altiplano maximum security prison.

Police officers bribed some of those Gallardo had called friends to help bring him to justice. “Three of them came at me and knocked me to the ground with rifle butts,” he wrote in his prison diary about his arrest. “They were people I had known since 1971 in Culiacán [in Sinaloa].”

He was worth over $500 million when he was apprehended and sentenced to 37 years in prison.

Félix Gallardo Now And The Legacy Of The Guadalajara Cartel

Gallardo’s arrest became an impetus for exposing just how corrupt Mexico’s police force was. In the days that followed his apprehension, some 90 policemen deserted while several commanders were arrested.

Trailer for Netflix’s second season of Narcos following Gallardo.

Quintero was released from prison in 2013 on a legal technicality and is still wanted by both Mexican and U.S. law to this day. In 2016, he gave an interview from hiding to Mexico’s Proceso magazine denying any role in Camarena’s murder and rejecting reports that he had returned to the drug world at all.

Fonseca was transferred to house arrest in 2016 under terms granted to elderly prisoners with health problems.

Félix Gallardo now in his 70s. His case had dragged on for decades in Mexican tribunals and the Godfather of the Mexican cartels had to pay around $1.18 million in reparation payments to families who were victims to cartel violence.

The prosperity Gallardo brought to the Mexican cartels was unmatched — and he managed to continue orchestrating business from behind bars.

But Gallardo’s hold on the cartel from within prison quickly fell apart. With the DEA raging a war on drugs, other cartel leaders started to push into his territory and everything that he’d built started to crumble.

Felix Gallardo Played By Diego Luna

NetflixActor Diego Luna as Félix Gallardo in Narcos: Mexico.

Camarena’s death has since inspired films, books, TV documentaries, and put the public spotlight on drug trafficking. As a result, cartels changed into regional operations, like the Sinaloa cartel controlled by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and operations were driven underground.

But they are far from over.

Meanwhile, in 2017, a location scout named Carlos Muñoz Portal was shot and killed in rural Mexico while working on Narcos: Mexico. “The facts surrounding his death are still unknown as authorities continue to investigate,” Netflix said in a statement.

If history is any indication, his death will probably remain a complex mystery.


After this look at the true story behind Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, explore these raw photos that reveal the futility of the Mexican Drug War. Then, check out who could be the “real brains” behind the Medellin Cartel’s success.

Emell Adolphus
Emell Derra Adolphus is a New York City-based writer and magazine editor with more than 10 years of experience covering Black and LGBT-focused topics. He is currently working on his debut novel.