The life and death of 'cocaine godmother' Griselda Blanco

 

The Miami Herald

Griselda Blanco's story was often told in numbers: she turned tricks at 14, and moved 300 kilos of cocaine a month in her 40s.

Known as the "Godmother" of the cocaine racket, she had up to 20 aliases, and unsubstantiated lore said she ordered some 250 murders. Police put it closer to 40. She died Monday at 69 at the Cardiso butcher shop on 29th Street in a Medellín neighborhood, where the former madrina was gunned down after a life of drugs and murder. Her last act on earth was buying $150 worth of meat.

The cocaine trade pioneer, who made her mark by bloodying Miami’s streets, died the same way she was arrested in 1985: with a Bible on her chest. It was a predictable end to a life marred by violence, prison, and impunity — a legacy nearly forgotten until filmmakers made her notorious. At least three feature films and an HBO series featuring Blanco were in the works at the time of her death.

“She found religion in later years,” said her former lover Charles Cosby, who expects to start shooting a film early next year called Hustle about his relationship with Blanco. “At the same time, you can’t bring a Bible to a gunfight.”

On Monday afternoon, a middle-age man climbed off the back of a motorbike outside a butcher shop in a quiet Medellín suburb, entered, pulled out a gun and shot Blanco twice in the head before calmly walking back to his bike and disappearing into the city.

As the woman lay dying on the ground, her pregnant daughter-in-law, who had been waiting in the car, lay a Bible on her chest.

No one who witnessed the attack knew until later that the victim was one of the most violent and powerful drug traffickers in Miami’s history. According to a witness interviewed by The Miami Herald, the killer was a man in his 40s or 50s who was calm and composed throughout the attack.

“He was a professional,” the witness said. “It was vengeance from the past.”

A police spokesman said it was known Blanco was in Medellín for the last eight years since serving 19 years in U.S. prisons and being deported, but there were no open investigations into her activities and there was no evidence that she was still involved in drug trafficking.

“If this was a homicide case in America, the list of suspects would be infinite,” said filmmaker Alfred Spellman, whose Cocaine Cowboy documentaries helped revive Blanco’s legend. “It would be the toughest case to solve: so many people wanted her dead.”

Blanco came up in crime by picking pockets. She eventually moved to New York, where she started trafficking in marijuana. But pot is bulky, and Blanco saw a growing lucrative market in cocaine, which was easier to tuck into girdles and other undergarments she had specially made, said Bob Palombo, the former DEA agent who helped bring her down.

“She mesmerized people,” Palombo said. “She could woo you with her acumen and make you a loyal follower. There was also fear: Anybody working for her also knew she wouldn’t ask anyone to do what she wouldn’t do herself.”

Her role in history as a ruthless female drug lord who killed at will was chronicled in a 1990 biography. Spellman later featured her in two documentaries and is now executive producing an HBO dramatic series based on the movies.

Palombo has a film project, too: both he and Blanco sold the rights to their story to First Born Films, which is finishing up a script. Mark Wahlberg made headlines early this year by announcing that Jennifer Lopez was chasing him down to play Blanco in a separate film he’s working on for Paramount.

The Bio Channel did a show on Blanco recently, as did National Geographic, Palombo said.

“There’s nothing wrong with competition, especially at the box office,” Cosby, a former crack dealer, said.

He explained that his affection for Blanco was not unlike the admiration a high school basketball player would have for Michael Jordan. Cosby was in the business, and admired the guru of his trade.

“Griselda got a bad rap,” he said. “We’ve all done things. Don’t judge her from what you hear in the media. I believe the number of murders she’s rumored to have ordered is accurate. At the same time, how many years ago was that? We all make mistakes.”

But Palombo said revenge runs deep.

“In that line of work, all debts are settled,’’ he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Schlessinger, who prosecuted Blanco, said he doesn’t dare venture to guess how many murders she ordered.

“It would certainly be dozens,” Schlessinger said. “We have no idea here how many murders she authorized in Colombia. She was a complete sociopath. She murdered people at the drop of a hat. 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.”

She invented some of the techniques that became standard smuggling and murdering methods, and is alleged to have been responsible for the deaths of at least two of her ex-husbands. But Blanco was only criminally charged for three killings, in a case that fell apart when it was revealed that the star witness had phone sex with the secretaries at the Miami-Dade state attorneys office. Schlessinger recalls that Blanco got a good deal on her federal case as well, because defense attorney Roy Black made a plea bargain with the judge without the federal prosecutor’s knowledge.

“I was really surprised when I heard she was killed,” Schlessinger said. “We presumed her dead years ago.”

Schlessinger said he was at Blanco’s California home the day in 1985 that Palombo finally made his arrest after a decade of investigating.

“Palombo went up to her and gave her a big fat kiss,” Schlessinger said. “He said, ‘Griselda! I’m so glad to see you!’ That was the truth: he had been tracking her for 10 years.”

Palombo recalls how he interrupted her as she lay in bed reading the Bible.

“She was quite startled,” he said.

There was less surprise at the El Poblado high-rise where Colombian media say the queenpin lived in a valley of bamboo trees and luxury tower blocks cut into the Medellín mountainside.

“The people here have a lot of money and no one knows who they are or where it came from,” the security guard at one of the high-rises said. “It is very closed.”

Blanco was known to walk freely in the streets without bodyguards or ostentatious displays of wealth. She shopped at the corner Cardiso butcher shop often, and the workers were unaware of their customer’s brutal past.

“Her physical appearance had changed a lot — she looked quite fat,” the witness to her murder said.

He was surprised that her avengers let her live so long. Perhaps, he theorized, she outlived them.

“Because of her legal past — she spent a lot of time in prison — they let her live for a long time,” he said. “Out of these people, who is left? Very few. People don’t care about her anymore.”

The morning after the murder, the butcher shop was busy with customers and there was no sign of the execution of the day before. In Medellín, which still carries the scars of Pablo Escobar’s war against the Colombian state, life moves on quickly. The previous day, the police on the scene had not even taken statements from most of the witnesses to the murder, according to the witness.

“There was very little to tell,” he shrugged.

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