It's more than two decades since Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who pioneered Colombia's cocaine trade and became the leader of one of the most powerful, and fearsome criminal organisations ever assembled, was killed on a rooftop in his native Medellin.

The death of the man who made and lost billions, ordered the executions of thousands, and had his own army of kill-on-demand "soldiers" signalled the end of an era of drug trafficking.

And the birth of another.

The megalomaniac the world knew variously as El Doctor, Don Pablo, El Patron and El Senor was legendary for his ruthlessness. He dealt with his enemies with what he called "plate o plomo" - literally, "silver or lead".

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It meant if bribes didn't work, bullets came next.

Regarded as one of the most notorious and wealthy drug lords of all time, at the height of his reign he was on the Forbes rich list as the seventh richest man in the world, and in the 1980s was reportedly responsible for up to 80 per cent of the cocaine imported to the United States.

His story prompted books, movies, and, more recently, hit Netflix series Narcos.

But 23 years on, there's a rival for Escobar's crown. A consortium of rivals. actually.

They're the new brand of drug lord, and if you cut one individual down, another springs up from the business-style drug cartel's "boards" which rule the trade to take his place.

Who has taken Pablo's spot?

Mexico has stolen Medellin's mantle as the biggest operator.

Two cartels do the bulk of the business: the Sinaloa cartel, generally regarded as the most powerful and wealthiest cartel in Mexico and in the world, and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) now rivals the Sinaloa.

And it's from those cartels that three men - the new versions of Pablo Escobar - have emerged: Sinaloa's Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García and Rafael Caro Quintero and CJNG's Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes are the DEA's most wanted men.

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At least for as long as a bloke named "El Chapo", the violent head of Sinaloa stays behind bars.

Sean Penn and recaptured Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera also known as 'El Chapo'. The Hollywood actor met El Chapo after his escape from a Mexican prison in 2015. Photo / Sean Penn
Sean Penn and recaptured Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera also known as 'El Chapo'. The Hollywood actor met El Chapo after his escape from a Mexican prison in 2015. Photo / Sean Penn

But first, 'El Chapo'

Until his arrest in January this year, Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera headed Sinaloa, Escobar-style.

He's the man who infamously was interviewed by Hollywood star Sean Penn while on the run last year, sparking controversy and condemnation.

The US Federal Government considered him "the most ruthless, dangerous, and feared man on the planet".

Indeed, even his flight from justice resembled Escobar's - Escobar's number one assassin, Jhon "Popeye" Jairo Velásquez Vásquez said El Chapo's ability to flout the law and undermine Mexico's politicians made them alike because of their "grave political costs".

In an interview with news magazine Proceso in August 2015, "Popeye" compared Escobar's 1992 escape from prison to El Chapo's second, in July 2015.

El Chapo escaped twice from Mexican high-security prisons, first in 2001 in a cart of dirty laundry, and in July last year using a mile-long tunnel that led directly to his cell.

"Popeye" said like Escobar, El Chapo's ability to flout the law made him a threat to Mexico's political class.

Asked did he compare the two fugitives "Popeye" said: "Yes, for their grave political costs. The states remain like banana republics. But in the case of 'El Chapo' I think that it is stronger still, for the tunnel, for the corruption."

El Chapo's escapes humiliated the Mexican government, who have agreed to extradite him to the US, a decision El Chapo's legal team is fighting.

The DEA's website has an emphatic "CAPTURED" stamped on his mugshot on its website.

Most people say the Sinaloa will confine its operations through its vast networks.

"The drug trade will continue to operate without 'El Chapo', but 'El Chapo' represented drug traffickers who could defy the government," Grillo, author of Gangster Warlords, told Business Insider.

Which makes El Chapo's right-hand man, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García, the world's most powerful drug kingpin.

'El Mayo' Zambada, the most wanted

He's described by a former head of international operations for the DEA as "one of the most elusive drug lords ever".

While "El Chapo" has served time in prison, Ismael Zambada García, also known as "El Mayo" Zambada, has never served a day behind bars.

He keeps a far lower profile than El Chapo, and certainly Escobar, ever did.

The Sinaloa cartel operates like a company, with a "board of directors", and, El Mayo, 68, remains its most powerful player because he is free.

He's accused of murder, and ordering multiple executions, trafficking, conspiracy and violence.

He teamed up with El Chapo after El Chapo's first escape from jail in 2001, according to journalist Malcolm Beith's book, The Last Narco.

In a 2010 magazine interview, El Mayo said his capture or death would make "little difference" to drug trafficking in Mexico: "there would always be others" to take his place.

Former DEA international operations head Mike Vigil spent more than a decade working in Mexico, and described El Mayo as "one of the most elusive drug lords whom Mexico has targeted".

"He has the ability, he is widely respected by the organisation, he knows who the sources are for cocaine, and other drugs, and has a great understanding in all the aspects involved in cultivation, transportation and distribution."

Rafael Caro Quintero

He's described as a "psychopath", and if there's a prime example of El Mayo's belief his own capture won't dent the deadly drug trafficking trade, it lives in his deadly former Sinaloa sidekick Rafael Caro Quintero.

Among the litany of crimes including murder, ordering executions, trafficking, possession and violence, he's accused of the kidnapping and murder of a US Federal agent.

He was captured in 1985 in a crackdown launched following the kidnap, torture, and murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena.

He was given 40 years jail. But in 2013 after he'd served 28 years, a judge released him on a technicality. By the time the paperwork for a fresh warrant was sorted, he was gone and on the run.

Within Sinaloa, some say Caro Quintero resumed a prominent role.

"The situation with Caro Quintero was pretty tragic," Vigil told The World Post.

"He is a killer, a complete psychopath, who has no respect for human life.

"For him to be released after killing Kiki Camarena and a multitude of other people is a travesty of justice."

But the man himself has pleaded for "a second chance", telling Vice News in July he'd paid for his crimes, wanted to be left in peace and refuting reports that he is currently heading an assault on territory controlled by former allies in the Sinaloa cartel.

The 63-year-old fugitive said once known as "The Prince" claimed he no longer has any criminal relevance.

"I stopped being a drug trafficker in 1984 and will never be one again," he said.

'El Mencho' the rising force

Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes is the prominent leader of the on-the rise Jalisco New Generation cartel, known as CJNG in Spanish.

Statements that have been reported by some of the CJNG members who have been arrested have said that El Mencho is a ruthless man who does not tolerate disobedience and likes to be asked for forgiveness when he's going to kill someone, according to the Borderandbeat website.

CJNC is thought to be the fastest-growing on Mexico's seven main drug cartels, in the past five years it has grown to come second only to Sinaloa. Once they were seen as Sinaloa's little brothers. Not they're challenging them all over the country.

They run drugs, but appear to have a special interest in producing methamphetamine.

Under El Mencho, it's been a bloody and violent rise: the most public in 2015 when they carried out several attacks on law enforcement in the state of Jalisco. They even shot down a military helicopter in May that year. In August, two of El Chapo's children were kidnapped, then mysteriously released a few days later. It's believed CJNG were behind it.

El Mencho is believed to have begun the rise by violently seizing other gangs' turf and was able to expand rapidly in western Mexico, where a rival cartel was deteriorating.

The added danger is that CJNG has the capability to build its own guns.

A raid last October turned up evidence that CJNG members were making their own AR-15 assault rifles with "highly sophisticated machinery," according to Jalisco Attorney General Luis Carlos Najera.

According to the DEA, the group now rivals the Sinaloa cartel in terms of trafficking operations in parts of Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

"It is spreading like a cancer in Mexico," Vigil said.

"It's the fastest expanding cartel and they could in the near future overtake the Sinaloa cartel as the most significant organised group in Mexico."

The new face in the most wanted list on the governments of Mexico and the United States. El Mencho reportedly grew up cultivating avocados, migrated to California and was then deported for his involvement on a heroin distribution network.