Griselda Blanco, also known as la madrina and the “cocaine godmother,” was a drug lord of the notorious Medellín Cartel (yes, the same one headed by none other than Pablo Escobar). She was assassinated in 2012 in Medellín, Colombia, after returning to her home country following a stint in U.S. federal prison. Griselda was, by most accounts, a ruthless woman who killed over 200 people—and that’s just the official estimate.
She was also a mother to several children, one of whom, Michael Corleone Blanco, is the subject of a new VH1 series called Cartel Crew, which follows the lives of narco children and grandchildren as they navigate the aftermath of their parents’ crimes.
We first meet Blanco and his wife, Marie (also a child of drug traffickers) as they’re preparing to launch their clothing and lifestyle brand, called, rather appropriately, Pure Blanco. Although they both swear they’ve left the cartel life behind them, they mention it rather frequently. “That life has always followed me,” Marie explains to the camera, while Michael, who has a tattoo of his namesake, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, is more blunt. “I buried 22 members of my family, including my mother and two brothers,” he says, after revealing he took over Griselda’s business at the age of 16 while she was in prison. However, they’re both optimistic that Pure Blanco will give them the momentum to finally leave the cartel life—although whether that prediction is genuine, or just for the benefit of the show’s producers, remains to be seen.
Griselda Blanco’s assassination has severely affected Michael, who brings it up every few minutes in the first episode. It’s natural, of course, for a son to mourn his mother, but Michael swears he’s not using his mother’s death to turn a profit—even though most of Pure Blanco’s clothing features Griselda’s image, with a catchy slogan like “Badass Like Griselda” emblazoned across the front.
Also featured in Cartel Crew are Marie’s friends, Kat ‘Tatu Baby,’ and Stephanie, both of whom also have familial ties to the cartel. “Learning about my father and everything… I have really bad taste in men,” Kat explains sheepishly, before revealing that the father of her son is currently in prison for drug-related charges. She isn’t letting that stop her from growing her tattoo shop into an empire, though. “I’m gonna be the female Pablo Escobar of tattoos,” she says.
Stephanie, Marie, Kat, and Michael spend most of the first episode decrying their ties to the cartel life, and swearing that they’ve moved on to more legal pastures—while simultaneously referencing their family connections at every chance. Michael insists that he’s not glorifying the narco lifestyle—“I’m glorifying the life of my queen, Griselda… [and] I’m doing it legally,” he claims. In a particularly bizarre scene, Michael and Marie meet a Pure Blanco employee in a parking lot at night to check out some samples of clothing. The whole thing is shot like a sketchy drug deal in a B-movie, as said employee furtively pops the trunk to reveal a whole cache of black bodysuits and T-shirts.
A point of pride for most of the cartel legacies featured on the show seems to be their purportedly humble upbringings. Stephanie, an aspiring singer, emphasizes that she and her family were “dirt poor” after her father was arrested, whereas Michael says he has “no money.” “Do you see me driving around Ferraris? Fuck it, I drive Hondas!” he explains. In fact, a cartel upbringing—humble or otherwise—seems to be a de facto point of entry into the little group. When Marie recruits Stephanie and Kat to be brand ambassadors for Pure Blanco, she also includes another Miami-area woman, named Nicole. “She has a huge fan base and she’s affiliated cartel-wise, so I thought that would be perfect,” Marie explains to a skeptical Stephanie and Kat.
Indeed, it turns out that Nicole also has family members in law enforcement—not necessarily a red flag for cartel families, who often infiltrate local police forces, but it’s enough to cause her to be ousted from Pure Blanco regardless.
The episode concludes with a fight between Stephanie, Kat, Marie, and Nicole at Pure Blanco’s launch party, in a scene that seems more Jersey Shore than Narcos. The only thing that prevents Cartel Crew from joining the likes of Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With the Kardashians in the annals of guilty-pleasure reality TV is that, while those shows featured their fair share of vicious fights, no one’s mother was responsible for the murders of 200 people. It seems unlikely that anyone on Cartel Crew would resort to fatal violence, but regardless, the threat remains.
Both Michael and Marie—and Kat and Stephanie, as well—seem determined to make a name for themselves outside of their families’ history. “I want to distribute legal dope clothing like my mama distributed dope all around the world,” Michael says proudly. “Am I not living the American dream by doing this?”