The Miami drugs war – a battle to control cocaine in the South Florida city – came out in the open with the “Dadeland Mall Massacre”, a daytime shooting in July 1979 that killed two mobsters, wounded two civilians, and terrified a mall-full of shoppers.
The shooting was masterminded by Griselda Blanco, a Colombian cocaine trafficker also dubbed The Black Widow, The Cocaine Queen, and La Madrina – aka The Godmother. Now Sofía Vergara plays Blanco in a six-part Netflix series, Griselda.
Two men walked into a liquor store, killed a high-ranking cocaine boss and his bodyguard, and sped off in a van, spraying the parking lot with bullets from the rear door.
The sheer brass neck of the broad daylight shooting was a stark wake-up for both the authorities and the public about the scale of the drug violence in Miami at the time. It was indeed a war and Griselda Blanco – so gangland lore goes – was among its most bloodthirsty generals.
But it wasn’t until the Cocaine Cowboys documentaries in the late 2000s that her story came to prominence. Now – 12 years after she was killed in a drive-by shooting, an assassination method she pioneered – Blanco is hot property for filmmakers and showrunners. Catherine Zeta Jones played Blanco in a 2018 TV movie, while Jennifer Lopez has been tipped to play her in a languishing biopic.
The Netflix series has been a decade-in-the-making passion project for Sofía Vergara. Produced by Narcos showrunner Eric Newman and directed by Andrés Baiz – also a Narcos mainstay – Griselda paints a more sympathetic picture of The Godmother. She’s a glam, whip-smart, conscientious mother who’s not only a drugs queen-pin, but a sister doing it for herself. The Dadeland Mall Massacre is framed as part of a just, feminist retribution – smashing the patriarchy by shooting the mobsters who won’t do business with an intelligent woman.
For Eric Newman and Andrés Baiz, the show is about putting a different perspective on Blanco. “Prior to our show there’s a very one-sided, anti-female point of view that she was just a monster – an anomaly in the trafficking world, a b-tch who rose to the top,” says Newman. “We believe that there was a time in the beginning when she was beloved by the people who relied on her and followed her.”
Their version of Blanco, says Newman, is “the most relatable, root-able, sympathetic narco we’ve ever done [in a TV series]. A woman who is disadvantaged, persecuted, underestimated, and has three children to take care of.”
Those who knew Blanco might say otherwise. Stephen Schlessinger, an assistant US attorney who prosecuted Blanco, told the Miami Herald that she was “a complete sociopath”. Her chief hitman and advisor, Jorge “Rivi” Ayal-Rivera – now serving life for murder – said she thrived on the carnage. “She liked to be at war. Every day she’d say, ‘We’ve got to get so-and-so’. It was something she enjoyed.”
Bob Palombo, a DEA agent who tracked her for ten years, agreed. “Griselda loved killings,” he told The Independent last year. Indeed, she has been linked with anything between 40 to 250-plus murders. “It would certainly be dozens,” said Schlessinger. Among her victims were at least two of her husbands – hence the “Black Widow” moniker.
Though even Palombo, the man who eventually arrested Blanco in 1985, admitted a smidgen of sympathy for her violent childhood. “You almost, almost I say, and I don’t say this a lot, you almost have to feel sorry for somebody that never had a real chance.”
The Godmother was born Griselda Blanco Restrepo in 1943. She grew up with an abusive, alcoholic mother in a mountainside slum in Medellín, Colombia, which became the home of the notorious Colombian drugs cartel. Violence and death were rife. It was the era of La Violencia in Colombia – a 10-year period of rioting and civil war. According to the Cocaine Cowboys II documentary, the slum kids would dig holes and throw in dead bodies for entertainment. In another oft-told tale, Blanco – who turned to crime as a child to eat – helped kidnap a 10-year-old boy from a more affluent area.
His family didn’t pay the ransom, so young Griselda – just 11 years old herself at the time – shot the boy between the eyes. “There’s no shortage of apocryphal stories and things that we came to believe are untrue,” says Newman. Though there’s one aspect of her backstory he believes. “Almost certainly she was victimised by men her whole life.”
Blanco turned to prostitution at the age of 14 and later married a low-level gangster named Darío Pestañas Trujillo. Blanco and Trujillo had three sons – Uber, Dixon and Osvaldo. Trujillo created false ID documents and Blanco got her first taste of trafficking: smuggling illegal immigrants. At some point, Trujillo died. Details on his death are patchy, though one story says that Blanco had him killed.
The soon-to-be-dubbed Black Widow then married well-off criminal Alberto Bravo. It was Bravo who introduced Blanco to cocaine smuggling. Together, they smuggled cocaine to New York and Blanco showed an aptitude for criminal craftiness. She bought an underwear factory and personally designed bras and girdles with compartments for smuggling drugs (an innovation seen in the Netflix series). With their operation of a reported 1,500 dealers, smugglers, and enforcers, they used women as drug mules. Each carried up to $10,000 worth of cocaine in their underwear.
Chasing a coke-fuelled American Dream, Blanco and Bravo moved to New York and wrestled a significant cut of the New York cocaine trade from the Mafia’s Five Families.
“They were millionaires within months – literally,” said Charles Cosby, a reformed coke dealer, on the Cocaine Cowboys II documentary. Cosby sought drug business advice from Blanco when she was behind bars and later became her confidant and lover. According to Cosby, The Godmother was making $10 million per week at this time. While Bravo made return trips to Colombia to oversee the production end of their operation, Blanco spent extravagantly, particularly on her sons. But their relationship became like any other cartel partnership from the movies: it broke down over suspicion, paranoia, and money. According to Hugo Clark’s well-researched book, The Black Widow, it was Blanco’s taste for violence that drove them apart – as well as her extravagant spending.
The NYPD and DEA targeted Blanco and Bravo’s organisation as part of Operation Banshee. “But we never laid eyes on her,” Palombo told The Independent. “Her voice never really showed up on the wiretap investigation. Or on much of anything.” Palombo also called her a “chameleon” – able to change her appearance and evade detection (also helped by her knowledge of bogus ID documentation). Blanco was indicted on drug trafficking charges, following the seizure of cocaine shipments into the US, but she disappeared. The following year, 12 Colombians were convicted. Both Bravo and Blanco were named as leaders of the operation.
But – according to cartel legend – Bravo was dead by that point. In April 1975, Blanco went to meet her husband in Colombia – purportedly to iron out their differences. Both husband and wife arrived with armed bodyguards. The summit quickly turned into a shootout. Blanco shot her husband dead, though he wounded her in the stomach with a blast from his Uzi. Six bodyguards were supposedly killed in the gunfight.
This incident – or a version of it – is the point at which the Netflix series begins, following Blanco’s relocation to Miami in the late 1970s.
The Godmother changed the landscape of the Miami drug trade, warring with Cuban dealers and other Colombians. It wasn’t just about the power struggle. “She murdered people at the drop of a hat,” Schlessinger told the Miami Herald. “She would kill anybody who displeased her, because of a debt, because they screwed up on a shipment or she didn’t like the way they looked at her.”
Some reports say that she ordered her enforcers to kill the whole family – women and children included. Top enforcer Rivi later told how he carried out a hit on her behalf, killing one target while their children watched TV in the next room.
Making a reported $80 million a month in Miami, Blanco lived in ludicrous, Scarface-like opulence. She threw wild, drug-fuelled parties. Party guests included Pablo Escobar, head honcho of the Colombian drug cartel and subject of Narcos. Some accounts say that Escobar was in fact Blanco’s protégé. Certainly, the DEA credited Blanco with creating the blueprint for the cartel.
The 1979 Dadeland Mall Massacre was an eye-opener about the severity of the drugs war – to say the least – but far from the end. As reported in Gerald Posner’s book, Miami Babylon, the Miami murder rate set records every year – 349 murders in 1979, 569 in 1980, 621 in 1981. Fifty per cent of murders were drug-related. There were so many bodies that the Medical Examiner’s Office couldn’t physically store them. It had to hire a chilled trailer from Burger King to store them. Miami at the time was frequently compared to the Wild West. Time Magazine ran a 1981 cover story on Miami’s troubles called “Paradise Lost”. The issue makes a cameo in Netflix’s Griselda.
The series depicts Blanco’s ascent to Godmother as her taking what she believes is rightfully hers – fighting back against men who have abused or underestimated her. “At the beginning she uses her wit, imagination and ideas to fight men who are fighting with violence and the usual tactics – brute force,” says Baiz. “We like that about her.”
Her worst impulses are depicted – as is often the case in the gangster genre – as the result of losing herself in the violence and drugs (the real Godmother was hooked on a paranoia-inducing basuco, a raw cocaine paste and byproduct of the coke production process).
Newman and Baiz admit that the show isn’t a slave to real-life events. Rather, it uses various incidents to prop up the episodes. “Our fence posts,” says Newman, “on which we string the story.” In between there’s some creative licence. “It’s what we imagine to be the reason for some of her moves,” Newman adds. “Why she did what she did.”
Still, much of what’s seen in the series is based on fact: Blanco buying her third husband, Dario Sepúlveda, a gold-plated MAC-10 machine gun; bisexual orgies and forcing people to have sex at gunpoint; the descent into drug-powered paranoia; and her band of hitmen called the “Pistoleros”. According to the DEA, initiation into the Pistoleros was earned by killing a target then slicing off a body part as proof.
Much of it feels like it must be fiction – stuff that’s straight from the gangster genre. “You’d be surprised how much of the absurdity from the show is real,” says Baiz.
Much like the real mobsters who watched The Sopranos and were recorded talking about whether the show was based on them, Griselda was keenly aware of the genre. She named her fourth son Michael Corleone, named after Al Pacino’s character in The Godfather. (Blanco has a penchant for famous baddies’ names, in fact. She also had a German Shepherd named Hitler.)
Another real incident depicted in the series is the killing of a two-year-old boy. Rivi was sent to kill a former cartel enforcer, Jesus “Chucho” Castro, but accidentally shot Castro’s son, Johnny. In the show, the guilt weighs heavily over Griselda. But the real-life Rivi told a different story. “At first she was real mad ‘cause we missed the father,” Rivi told police about the shooting. “But when she heard we had gotten the son by accident, she said she was glad – that they were even.”
Newman says he resisted consulting with the real-life Rivi. “We thought about it. In my experience – six seasons of Narcos and ten years of working on it – once criminals have you, they have a very specific story to tell you. And it’s never about what they did – it’s about what was done to them. Rivi is a master manipulator. I can only imagine what he would have had to say. Once you hear their story and you reject their story because it’s most likely b-------, you’ve entered into a dynamic with someone you don’t want to be in a dynamic with.”
They did, however, consult with June Hawkins, a former Miami police officer who investigated Blanco. Hawkins is played by Juliana Aidén Martinez in the series. She’s a mirror image of Griselda – a smart woman trying to make it in a man’s world.
The real-life Blanco had her third husband, Dario Sepúlveda, killed after he fled with Michael Corleone. As the gangland legend goes, Sepúlveda was shot dead in front of the boy.
The hit was one of several incidents that turned other members of the Colombian cartel against Blanco. The nephew of her second husband was also gunning for her – revenge for killing his uncle years earlier. Bob Palombo later described how the DEA was forced to pause its investigation and get Bravo’s nephew off the streets – so he didn’t kill Blanco and waste a 10-year investigation.
Blanco moved to California and was finally arrested in 1985. Palombo had promised other agents he’d seal her arrest with a kiss. When he entered her home, he did indeed kiss The Godmother. “Hola, Griselda. We finally meet.”
She was initially convicted on drug charges, but not the murders. But in 1994, Rivi – by that point serving life – agreed to give evidence about murders he’d committed on The Godmother’s behalf. “Rivi has enough dirt on me to bury me 10 times,” she told Cosby.
According to Cosby, Blanco had one last bid for freedom: she hatched a plot to kidnap John F Kennedy Jr and demand safe passage from prison to Colombia. A four-man crew of Colombian kidnappers landed in New York and got close to Kennedy – but an NYPD patrol car scared them off.
The case against Blanco ran into trouble. It was discovered that Rivi had been having phone sex with the State Attorney’s secretaries. He was deemed an unreliable witness. (The show depicts this as a deliberate ploy by Rivi to get The Godmother off the hook.) Potentially facing the electric chair, Blanco pled guilty to three charges of second-degree murder.
Blanco was released in 2004 and returned to Medellín. She was shot by a drive-by assassin on September 3 2012 as she came out of a butcher’s shop. As Blanco lay dying, her pregnant daughter-in-law put a Bible on her chest. The Godmother was 69 years old.
Palombo wondered if she’d turned informant – she’d been living publicly for eight years. Why else should she be suddenly killed? Or perhaps, as one witness told the Miami Herald, it was “vengeance from the past”.
The Netflix series goes some way to humanise and sympathise with Griselda Blanco, but her ruthlessness is undeniable. “She likes the violence,” said Rivi in Cocaine Cowboys II. “She just wanted to be in charge. That’s why they called her The Godmother.”
Griselda is on Netflix now