A federal judge in Miami handed down the sentence to 48-year-old Diego Montoya, two months after he pleaded guilty to murder, drug trafficking and racketeering charges. At the proceedings, Montoya apologized for his past actions, saying he hoped his sentence would bring a measure of relief to victims and their families.
Montoya was charged with heading the Norte Valle cartel, which rose to become Colombia's most powerful cocaine cartel after the demise of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the mid-1990s.
Federal officials say at the cartel's peak, it supplied 60 percent of all Colombian cocaine transported to the United States. Montoya, known as Don Diego, was arrested in 2007 and extradited to the U.S. last year.
Montoya was once on the FBI's 10-most wanted list alongside al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Last April, a U.S. District judge in Florida sentenced Montoya's younger brother, Eugenio, to 30 years in prison on charges including conspiracy to import cocaine and obstruction of justice.
The U.S. government says the Norte Valle cartel used "violence and murder" to prevent people from passing information to law enforcement officials and to "instill fear."
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.