Walter White is impressively quick-witted in Breaking Bad, but so are most of his adversaries. While Walt is an antihero, most of the people that try to come between him and his goals are outright villains who have no problem committing evil deeds on a daily basis to also achieve their twisted dreams.
In the show, the Albuquerque and Mexican criminal underworlds are shown to be extremely brutal and unforgiving, and, as a result, those that don’t think fast enough like Krazy-8, Spooge, Tortuga, and Combo soon get eliminated. Even among those who care to think things through, some are much more effective than others.
It takes a certain amount of cunning to successfully operate a crime organization as large as Salamanca’s. However, in terms of genuine intelligence, Tuco comes across as somewhat lacking.
It’s correct to presume that the Albuquerque operations have been successful so far because Tuco has some business acumen. However, he makes plenty of reckless decisions such as beating No-Doze to death, an act that counts as one of the most unnecessary kills in Breaking Bad. The impulsive action causes the DEA to come for him after finding the body. He also tries to bully Walt and Jesse but is constantly outsmarted by the duo. Walt easily berates him into doing business with him by blowing up his hideout using fulminated mercury. After a tussle, Walt and Jesse also foil his plan to take them to Mexico.
The archetypical gang enforcer serves as Walter White’s cook for a short while when Mike and Jesse opt to get out of the meth business. He then becomes a full-time member of Jack’s gang where his callous nature becomes more apparent.
While he is opportunistic enough to thrive in crime, Todd is lacking in shrewdness. Despite Walt teaching him how to cook meth, he doesn’t master the formula and has to rely on an enslaved Jesse to still do it. Todd makes a poor choice again during one of the best desert scenes in Breaking Bad. He kills child witness Drew Sharp during the train heist, making him lose favor among his associates. Murdering Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea is a costly mistake, too, as it’s Jesse who strangles him with shackles in the finale.
Before he is killed, Jack runs the most powerful criminal gang in the Southwest. He has gotten there by taking most of Walt’s money and teaming up with Lydia to manufacture meth.
Jack’s achievements are impressive, but he makes plenty of novice mistakes that eventually lead to his demise. His decision to kill Hank in front of Walt is a misguided one, as it sets Walt on the path of retribution. Keeping Jesse as a slave is also a miscalculation; a vengeful, violent man such as he ought to have known that Walt would eventually try to save him. Jack also lets greed overcome him by choosing the risky business of cooking meth, even when he already has millions that he took from Walt.
The patriarch of the Salamanca family is confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, and the reason why is explained in Better Call Saul. Nevertheless, he is as sharp as baddies come.
Hector’s level of awareness is above that of the ordinary gangster. At the desert hideout, he quickly figures out that Walt and Jesse are trying to poison his nephew Tuco. To save him, he rings his bell. At the Casa Tranquila nursing home, he is able to spell out Heisbelbergs name using an Ouija board, and despite having difficulties in communication, Hector conspires with Walt to assassinate Gus Fring using a bomb planted on his wheelchair.
Don Eladio Vuente
He mostly appears in flashback scenes, but Juarez Cartel boss Don Eladio does enough to leave an impact. The Mexican kingpin isn’t fond of Gus Fring because he sees him as a threat.
Bolsa deserves commendation for steering the Juarez Cartel into a higher tier of criminal factions. He understands the importance of vigilance, too, and that’s why he has Gus Fring’s partner Maximino Arciniega shot in one of the most shocking deaths in Breaking Bad. He knows that the two will become a threat and maybe even make cocaine irrelevant if he allows them to make forays into the Mexican market with their meth. Even though Gus poisons him, he isn’t clumsy, as he had made Gus take the liquor first.
The Juarez Cartel founding member acts as a liaison between Bolsa and Gus Fring. He also establishes a temporary truce between The Cousins and Gus, but he eventually gets himself killed for doublecrossing the restaurateur.
Aside from betraying Gus, Bolsa is portrayed as astute most of the time. He is quickly able to figure out that Tortuga is a DEA informant and tricks him into a room before having him killed. He also dissuades The Cousins from killing Hank because he understands how much heat that will bring. That he has been high ranking cartel member also shows that most of his colleagues trust his judgment.
Peter Schuler—the head of Madrigal Electromotive GmbH’s fast food division—is the quintessential corporate villain that enjoys operating from the shadows. He not only invests in Los Pollos Hermanos, but also the Superlab, thus empowering Gus Fring.
A statement from Madrigal Electromotive GmbH CEO Herzog in season 5’s “Madrigal” backs Schuler’s intelligence. The CEO states that Schuler singlehandedly grew their restaurant division into an industry leader in just a span of few months. It definitely takes superior brains to do that. Schuler is also a master of stealth, as no one ever discovers that he is involved in the drug trade until after his death.
Leonel and Marco Salamanca, better known as The Cousins, are the Juarez Cartel’s most reliable hitmen, and there is hardly a trace of conscience in their hearts. The two leave a trail of victims in their wake before being taken down by Hank and Mike respectively.
The Cousins prove to be shrewd killers by being creative in their execution methods. The duo takes credit for one of the most shocking scenes in Breaking Bad where they plant C4 explosives inside the informant Tortuga’s severed head and use it to blow up a group of DEA agents. They are noble enough to also follow the orders of those above them. When Gus requests them to not kill Walt, they oblige.
On the surface, Lydia—the Head of Logistics at Madrigal Electromotive GmbH—looks like a genuine white-collar executive, but, in secret, she is hobnobbing with drug lords. Lydia bankrolls Gus in the beginning, thus acting as a pillar for him in his rise to becoming one of the biggest kingpins in America.
Lydia’s cunning ways can be seen by how she keeps jumping ship depending on how she analyzes the tide. When Gus dies, she begins working with Walt and Mike, assisting them in conducting one of the biggest train heists of all time. She later shifts to Jack’s crew after realizing Walt’s future looks bleak—not to forget that she tries to eliminate everyone she has worked with to cover her tracks.
The Los Polos Hermanos proprietor comes a long way. An immigrant from Chile, he not only manages to run the most successful restaurant chain in Albuquerque, but also one of the biggest drug empires in the United States.
Nearly everything Gus does distinguishes him from the rest as the smartest. His Superlab is located under a laundromat, making it almost impossible for anyone to suspect that drugs are being manufactured at the facility. He also does charity work and endears himself to the DEA, thus portraying himself as an upstanding member of society. The manner in which he manages to eliminate his foe Don Eladio using poisoned tequila is remarkable, too.