Bullets once flew at Dadeland Mall in a deadly shootout. The Cocaine Cowboys were here

Scene of the 1979 shootout at Dadeland.
Scene of the 1979 shootout at Dadeland.

The deadly shootout at Dadeland Mall on July 11, 1979, in daylight between Colombian traffickers — quickly dubbed the Cocaine Cowboys by a police officer on the scene — heralded the beginning of South Florida’s bloody and violent drug wars.

The mob-style executions and growing violence in Miami were linked to the nascent Medellín Cartel consolidating its control of the drug business.

After a 1982 seizure of $100 million worth of cocaine from a Miami International Airport hangar, President Ronald Reagan created the South Florida Drug Task Force.

Here is a look at the Dadeland shootout, and its fallout, through the Miami Herald archives.

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The Miami Herald front page of July 12, 1979

Smuggler implicated

Printed May 21, 1984

Fernando Villega-Hernandez came into federal court Friday to be sentenced — for the second time — as a drug smuggler. He left accused as a killer.

Fingerprints and testimony could positively prove that Villega-Hernandez was one of the triggermen in a drug-war assassination that left two men dead at a Dadeland Mall liquor store in 1979, a government prosecutor said. But U.S. District Judge Jose A. Gonzalez refused to consider those statements before sentencing Villega-Hernandez to 15 years in prison.

The revelations about the sensational murders at the busy South Dade shopping mall came from special assistant U.S. Attorney Lurana Snow at Villega-Hernandez’s sentencing on unrelated charges in Fort Lauderdale.

“Why doesn’t the government take that information to a grand jury instead of me?” Gonzalez asked.

“Hopefully, they will,” Snow said. “We’re just not ready yet,”

Sgt. Al Singleton, a drug investigator with the Metro-Dade Police Department, said after the hearing: “The investigation is not complete.”

Villega-Hernandez first was convicted on cocaine conspiracy and possession charges last August. The next month, he was given a five-year prison term by U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings. In April, Villega-Hernandez was convicted again on similar charges.

He came Friday to federal court in Fort Lauderdale to be sentenced a second time by Gonzalez — and heard his name connected to the murder of German Panesso-Jiminez, killed at the Dadeland liquor store in July 1979.

The shooting received national press coverage labeling Miami as the home of gun-wielding “cocaine cowboys.”

“Villega said he felt good, for he was the first to open fire,” Snow quoted government informants as saying.

When he was arrested in March 1983, Villega-Hernandez was part of a major, organized cocaine importation and distribution network, Snow said. His brother, Carlos Arturo Villegas-Hernandez, supervised cocaine laboratories in Laticia, Colombia, and shipped his finished products — up to 30 kilograms of the drug per month — to Fernando to distribute in the United States.

The Villega-Hernandez brothers were commanded by Paco Sepulveda, said Steve Georges, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who added that the three were only one part of a drug smuggling conglomerate headed by Griselda Blanca in Colombia. Other branches of the Blanco operation in South Florida, the agent said, included those headed by Panesso and Carlos “Panello” Ramirez.

Though they answered to the same boss, the agent said, the rivalries between the various factions were intense.

“Panello had ripped off Panesso on a 40-kilo coke deal worth $3 million,” Georges said. “Panello decided to go after Panesso before he came for him. He joined forces with Paco, because Paco’s girl friend was sleeping with Panesso.” Villega-Hernandez was one of several men who appeared, on July 11, 1979, outside the Crown Liquor Store at Dadeland Mall in a “war wagon,” a truck equipped with reinforced steel, gun portholes and bulletproof vests.

Villega-Hernandez entered the store and opened fire on Panesso first with a .380 automatic handgun rigged with a silencer, Snow said. Ramirez finished the job with an automatic rifle, the attorney said.

Panesso’s bodyguard, Juan Carlos Hernandez, was also killed in the gunfire. Two bystanders were wounded. Police later said that at least 60 bullets were fired in the store and nearby. The war wagon was found hours later, less than a mile away.

Bernardo Diaz, who was married to Sepulveda’s sister, told government investigators the killers then went to a nearby apartment to clean up, Snow said. Ramirez’s shoes were particularly bloody.

The killers later partied for five days at a home in Hollywood, Snow quoted Diaz as saying. Ramirez, DEA agent Georges said, was himself killed in Colombia a year after the Dadeland slayings.

Sepulveda, convicted on drug charges in New York, is serving a 27-year term in a federal prison there, recovering from a broken back received in an escape attempt. Carlos Arturo Villega-Hernandez fled to Colombia.

On April 6, 1984, fingerprints taken from Fernando Villega- Hernandez as he sat in federal prison in Dade County on smuggling charges were matched to those lifted from the war wagon.

All that information, Judge Gonzalez said Friday, was still unproven and not for him to consider at Villega-Hernandez’s sentencing.

“It is improper, unconstitutional and more important than any of that, unfair,” he said.

Griselda Blanco.


Published Sept. 4, 20012

Griselda Blanco, the drug kingpin known for her blood-soaked style of street vengeance during Miami’s “cocaine cowboys” era of the ‘70s and ‘80s, was shot to death in Medellín by a motorcycle-riding assassin Monday.

Blanco, 69, spent nearly two decades behind bars in the United States for drug trafficking and three murders, including the 1982 slaying of a 2-year-old boy in Miami.

Called the “Godmother of Cocaine,” she was deported in 2004 to Colombia, where she maintained a low profile. Colombia’s national police confirmed her slaying late Monday. According to Colombian press reports, two gunmen on motorcycles pulled up to Blanco as she walked out of a butcher shop in Medellín, her hometown. One pumped two bullets into her head, according to El Colombiano newspaper.

It was the sort of death many had predicted for her: Blanco has been credited with inventing the idea of the “motorcycle assassin” who rode by victims and sprayed them with bullets.

“It’s surprising to all of us that she had not been killed sooner because she made a lot of enemies,” former Miami homicide detective Nelson Andreu, who investigated her, said late Monday. “When you kill so many and hurt so many people like she did, it’s only a matter of time before they find you and try to even the score.”

The former kingpin was with a pregnant daughter-in-law, who was uninjured. According to El Colombiano, the woman told police that Blanco was no longer involved in organized crime and that she was hoping to live off the sales of several properties she owned. Blanco came to epitomize the “cocaine cowboy” bloodshed of the 1980s, when rival drug dealers brazenly ambushed rivals in public.

Raised in the slums of Medellín, she began her criminal career as a pickpocket, eventually commanding an empire that reportedly shipped 3,400 pounds of cocaine per month, by boat and plane. She was considered a Colombian pioneer in drug smuggling to the United States, a precursor to the larger cartels that dominated in the 1980s.

She even had a Medellín lingerie shop custom design bras and girdles with special pockets to hold cocaine, a tool used by her drug mules flying to Miami. She ran the organization with her three of her four sons, two of whom were later assassinated in Colombia.

Blanco was known for her flamboyant lifestyle — one of her sons was named Michael Corleone, an homage to The Godfather movies. Three of her husbands died in drug-related violence. But it was her nasty temper and penchant for unyielding violence that drew the attention of law enforcement and the public. Investigators linked her to the daytime 1979 submachine gun attack at Dadeland Mall that shocked Miami.

Detectives conservatively estimated that she was behind about 40 homicides. She was only convicted of three murders. Two of them involved the slayings drug dealers Alfredo and Grizel Lorenzo in their South Miami house, as their three children watched television in another room. They had failed to pay $250,000 for five kilos of cocaine that Blanco had allegedly delivered to them.

he was also convicted of ordering a shooting that resulted in the death of 2-year-old Johnny Castro, shot twice in the head as he rode in a car with his father, Jesus “Chucho” Castro. Blanco was targeting Jesus Castro, a former enforcer for Blanco’s organization.

Detectives learned the intimate details of the hit from Jorge Ayala, the charismatic hit man who later testified against Blanco. He told police that Blanco wanted Castro killed because he kicked her son in the buttocks.

“At first she was real mad ‘cause we missed the father,” Ayala told police. “But when she heard we had gotten the son by accident, she said she was glad, that they were even.”

Blanco was arrested in 1985 in a cocaine trafficking case in New York. Ultimately, she served 13 years in federal custody before she was handed over to Florida authorities.

Blanco seemed destined for Florida’s Death Row — but the prosecution’s murders case was dealt a severe blow. The reason: Ayala — the case’s chief witness —- engaged in phone sex with secretaries from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

After an investigation, three secretaries were fired and a veteran prosecutor resigned. Special prosecutors from Orlando took over and Blanco cut a plea deal in 1998. Blanco was sentenced to three concurrent 20-year sentences, of which she had to serve only about one-third because of guidelines in effect at the time of the murders.

Even on her return to Colombia, she was believed to have held onto immense wealth. In recent years, younger Miamians were introduced to Blanco via two Cocaine Cowboys documentaries made by filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman.

“This is classic live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword,” Corben said Monday. “Or in this case, live-by-the-motorcycle-assassin, die-by-the-motorcycle assassin.”



Published Oct. 26, 2006

Bylines is an occasional series in which Herald staff writers share personal stories. This one was written by Howard Cohen.

The sound of gunfire echoed louder than a Led Zeppelin drum solo around the fuel-stained cement ramps inside Miami’s Omni International Mall parking lot. Flying from a crouched position, abandoning the idea of locking a $110 blue 10-speed Gitane — not cheap in 1979 dollars — I left the beloved bicycle for the taking outside the mall’s third-floor entrance.

I was hundreds of feet inside, behind the glass counter of a Hallmark gift shop, stammering incoherent orders at a startled cashier to “Call . . . Guns! 911 . . . Shooting!” before the bike even hit the ground.

Visions of Dadeland danced in my media-saturated mind.

This incident, after all, came within days of the July 12 carnage outside the Dadeland Mall in Kendall in which a group of assassins — quickly dubbed “the Cocaine Cowboys” by a police officer on the scene — opened fire with submachine guns outside a Crown Liquors store, killing two shoppers.

Dadeland and the Cocaine Cowboys changed everything if you lived here. Loud noises in a parking lot became cause for alarm. Paranoia set in. Maybe it was just backfire from a car.

To my knowledge, the Omni incident never even made the news.

“[The media] didn’t have the resources to cover it,” says film producer Alfred Spellman, whose documentary Cocaine Cowboys, which opens in theaters Friday, covers the bloody period when the drug trade exploded here and Miami drug lords made the Mafia seem like peacemakers. The local media couldn’t possibly recount every incident.

“[Last week] every 24-hour news station cut in with breaking coverage on the Turnpike and the family that was killed. It’s extraordinary how that story is that important the world over. In the ‘80s, that would not be the most important story of the day,” he says.

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Billy Corben Photo provided to the Miami Herald

The film, directed by Miami native Billy Corben (Raw Deal: A Question of Consent), plays like an episode of Miami Vice crossed with Scarface. One difference between those and Cocaine Cowboys, though: The fictional bad guys wither compared to the real-life Griselda Blanco, a k a the Black Widow.

Blanco was named by prosecutors as the most notorious killer of the period, roughly 1977-1984. The documentary portrays her as a ruthless murderer of men, women and even children. In a jailhouse interview, Jorge “Rivi” Ayala recounts for Corben and Spellman, with chilling charisma, the many hits he made on her orders.

No one seems remorseful in Cocaine Cowboys, especially a chatty Jon Pernell Roberts, a cocaine trafficker and distributor for the Medellín Cartel, or Mickey Munday, the creative pilot who smuggled 10 tons of snow from Colombia to Miami. Both men served time for their crimes.

The two-hour movie is crammed with archival footage — the Wolfson Florida Moving Image Archive was a godsend, Corben says — that hurls the viewer back in time. At 43, I’m old enough to remember it. Curiously, Corben and Spellman are only 28, born a mere year before the Dadeland massacre.

They were 5 when Scarface hit theaters, 6 when NBC’s Miami Vice became a Friday night fixture. Too young to possibly have memories of this era. Not so, they insist.

“I was born in 1978, but I heard stories growing up,” Corben says excitedly on the phone from New York City while on a promotional tour. “I grew up in Surfside and I went to Flamingo Park [in South Beach] and remember getting hustled out of the neighborhood as fast as possible because it was a dangerous, seedy part of town. . . . Always had it in the back of our minds that we would do something about this era,” Corben recalls, concluding, “We were fascinated with . . . the hypothesis that modern day Miami was built on the cocaine trade. Scarface was so over-the-top, but not really. When you talk to people and find out the real stories, [Scarface] was almost a documentary itself. That sparked our interest.”

To get Cocaine Cowboys from conception to screen required winnowing down 160 hours of interview footage — the snippet featuring former Miami Herald police reporter Edna Buchanan, for instance, was culled from a three-hour chat that took two cameras to catch — plus 12 hours of archival footage, several hundred still photographs and some B-roll Corben shot.

“That was one of the biggest challenges [in making our movie,]” Corben says. “Everybody you meet in Miami has a story. ‘Oh, did you talk to my cousin? If you didn’t talk to him, you didn’t get the whole story.’ “

But the story may not be finished. Corben and Spellman, who will release Clubland, an exposé on South Beach nightclubs, next year, stir old fears: Cocaine Cowboys ominously reveals that Blanco, the Black Widow, was deported after prosecutors failed to convict. Her whereabouts are unknown.

They speculate that if she is alive, she would be in her 60s and, given the porous nature of our borders, “no one would be surprised if she returned to our state. So look around.” Thanks, guys.