09.05.12

Griselda Blanco: The Gunned-Down Godmother

Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. the ‘Queen of Cocaine,’ was shot to death in Colombia this week. Mac Margolis on the matronly drug lord’s life as a gangster.

Short and plump, with a dimpled chin, Griselda Blanco might have been the grandmother next door. But Colombians knew better. Gunned down in her hometown of Medellin this week, the 69-year-old Colombian woman had spent a lifetime racking up felonies ranging from kidnapping and drug running to multiple murders.

Blanco was out running errands on Monday, picking up an order at a butcher shop in west Medellin, when according to witnesses a man on a motorcycle pulled up to her car, dismounted, and shot her twice in the head before speeding away. Watching the whole scene was Blanco’s pregnant ex daughter-in-law, who escaped unharmed. Blanco died where she lay.

Blanco’s end was as blunt and dramatic as her career had been. A rare matriarch in the macho world of Latin narcotráfico, she was already an established cocaine smuggler in the mid-1970s when Pablo Escobar was still boosting cars on the streets of Medellin, according to the Colombian magazine Semana. She quickly built up a cross-continental drug dynasty, which at its zenith shipped more than three tons of cocaine to the U.S. every year. By the 1980s, Blanco had amassed a small fortune trafficking Colombian cocaine and lived extravagantly, now in her Miami mansion, now in a luxury condominium, and driving a fleet of expensive cars and cultivating a mafia don’s taste for decadent entertainment.

Her story has long attracted the attention of crime buffs and filmmakers, and was a centerpiece in a pair of prize-winning documentaries by Miami director Billy Corben and his partner, producer Alfred Spellman: Cocaine Cowboys (2006) and Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin’ with the Godmother (2008). Mark Wahlberg is at work on a Hollywood feature about her life, with Jennifer Lopez reportedly pining for the role. “It’s one of those characters that will go down in history,” Wahlberg told the entertainment news wire News Times BPB earlier this year. “That’s Academy Award [material] right there.”

Blanco was not just a party girl. A childhood gang member in the slums of Medellin, she rose from pickpocket to kidnapper to narcotraficante when the Colombian cocaine trade was beginning to go global. Standing just over five feet tall, she could be as ruthless as any cocaine capo. Three of her husbands died violent, drug-related deaths—one of them, Alberto Bravo, reportedly by her own hand, a fame that earned her the nickname Black Widow. She named her youngest son Michael Corleone Sepúlveda, after the gangland heir in Mario Puzo’s mafia classic The Godfather. In the U.S. alone, investigators linked Blanco and her pandilla (criminal gang) to 40 separate murders, though unofficial tallies put the body count at 250.

Blanco died as she reigned, in a blaze of drive-by bullets.

Most of her victims were rival dealers or customers who missed payments. Occasionally, the offender’s family was rubbed out when Blanco settled her scores. Her most spectacular assault, a broad daylight attack in a busy suburban shopping center, went down in South Florida history. In 1979, three men in an armor-plated “war wagon,” investigators said, pulled up to a liquor store at the Dadeland Mall in Kendall, a Miami suburb, and opened fire with automatic weapons, leaving two dead, a store attendant wounded, and a parking lot full of bullet-riddled cars and shattered glass. The targets were Colombian dealers who apparently had crossed the Godmother.

The Dadeland incident shocked the nation, but apparently was just one in a string of murders that turned Miami into the most violent big city in the nation. That year, the Justice Department recorded 349 homicides in South Florida, a three-fold increase in just two years. Finally, in 1982, with the murder rate still rising and Florida increasingly in the grip of “Cocaine Cowboys,” President Ronald Reagan ordered a federal crime task force to the region.

Caught and convicted for three murders, Blanco spent 19 years behind bars in the U.S. In a deal with the prosecution, she was released in 2004 and deported back to Colombia. There, Blanco reportedly was trying to go clean, plowing her earnings into commerce, including a lingerie shop in Medellin. 

But Blanco was perhaps too deeply ensnared in the drug underworld to break free. Drug dealer turned government informant Max Mermelstein is unsentimental about the Godmother’s role. “If Griselda Blando de Trujillo had not existed, there never would have been cocaine wars,” he wrote in his tell-all novel cum autobiography, The Man Who Made It Snow.

The chatter in the crime world is that Blanco died as she reigned, in a blaze of drive-by bullets. Some posthumous reports even credit her with inventing murder by sicario, or motorcycle hitman, a contemporary version of the Chicago-style street drive-by shooting. At least Wahlberg now has an ending to his movie.