In the entertainment business, as in the news business, bad people sometimes make good stories.
Griselda Blanco was a very bad person — but good copy, as old-time reporters used to say. The godmother of South Florida’s drug underworld during the Cocaine Cowboys era (roughly the 1980s), Blanco is believed to have ordered the murders of scores if not hundreds of individuals and imported untold tons of cocaine into the United States.
Ultimately imprisoned and deported to Colombia, she died this past week as a result of two gunshots to the head, fired by a motorcycle-borne assassin.
Blanco’s infamy was in part due to University of Miami-trained filmmaker Billy Corben, who directed not one but two films about her exploits, Cocaine Cowboys and Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin’ with the Godmother. At the time of her death, he and his creative partner, Alfred Spellman, were working on a third project on Blanco, a miniseries for HBO.
Corben talked to The Miami Herald about the life and times of Griselda Blanco. The interview has been edited for length.
Q: You did two movies focusing partly or completely on Griselda Blanco. What turned you on to the subject?
A: Well, it began as an exploration of the Miami in the 1980s and the impact that the cocaine trade had on the community. Everyone we talked to in law enforcement and journalism eventually brought up Blanco as responsible for turning Miami into the murder capital of the country. Despite the wide variety of subjects in the first movie, a majority of the correspondences and comments we received were specifically about her. She was clearly a figure that audiences responded to.
Q: The henchmen you talked to for Cocaine Cowboys, were they frightened of the godmother?
A: Her hit men were obviously ruthless assassins. There was very little fear decades on. But Jorge Rivi Ayala, who was her primary enforcer and favorite hit man, had a lot of respect and affection for Griselda still, despite the fact that he had ended up cooperating with authorities making a case against her.
Q: At a time when she was wanted in New York she fled and put down roots in Miami? How openly did she live?
A: One of the many extraordinary things about her story was that the entire time she was operating in Miami and almost single-handedly fueling the cocaine wars, she was a fugitive from justice, and was in fact being pursued by the Drug Enforcement Administration. She was a main defendant in the first major cocaine conspiracy indictment in New York, part of Operation Banshee.
She was living, personally, very clandestinely. Very few people knew where she lived. She would go to various salons, to the Broward Mall. I think she was less concerned about the American authorities than she was one of her enemies catching up with her. But in terms of the enforcement of her business, she acted quite brazenly.
That’s the thing about the cocaine business. It is consignment based. Back in those days a kilo of cocaine would go for up to $50,0000. You would go to someone and say ‘I’m going to give you four kilos. How much time will it take you to get the $200,000?’ They come back in two weeks and they don’t have the money, you are not going to file a lawsuit.
Q: Did she reputedly consume her product a la Scarface’s Tony Montana?