A Colombian Queen’s Tale: The End and Beginning of Griselda Blanco

Griselda Blanco, the Cocaine Godmother, was gunned down in front of a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia on September 3, 2012.  Since her initial indictments in New York City beginning in the early 1970s, Blanco has flitted in and out of the popular imagination.  Tales of Blanco emerged first in police and court documents and newspapers. In more recent years, she could be found in nonfiction, docudramas, popular magazines, blogs, YouTube, and other media.

Like other high-level female drug traffickers, Blanco created important alliances with men, but differed from her peers due to her extensive use of violence.  She employed it as an offensive tool against male competitors and even men who were employed by her or her clients.  Violence served to demonstrate her power and to strike fear in the men that surrounded her. Her ruthlessness contributed to a growing gangster hagiography and titillation that continues to surround her and those men connected to her. This explains why her death brought new attention.  Yet, Blanco’s story is another New York City organized crime tale with many twists and turns: changing criminal enterprises, licit and illicit work, lovers turned traitors, and police/criminal chases across continents.

On Sunday morning, February 15, 1985, DEA agent Bob Palombo arrested a Venezuelan housewife for conspiring to distribute large amounts of cocaine and marijuana in the United States.  Arrested while reading the Bible, Blanco was far from the Venezuelan housewife she claimed to be.  She had a number of Venezuelan aliases (and passports) that she used throughout her career. Since the formation of the DEA, Palombo had tracked her from New York City to Miami to Texas to Colombia, and finally to California.  Palombo’s search for her became the focus of true crime novelist Richard Smitten’s book The Godmother published in 1990.

Sixteen years later, Blanco re-emerged in popular culture with the October 27, 2006 release of Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman’s documentary Cocaine Cowboys.  In the film, Corben retells the cocaine wars of South Florida in the late 1970s and early 1980s contributing to Blanco’s return to popular culture in newspapers such as the Miami Herald.  With her recent death, Corben has given a number of interviews about Blanco.

His film depicts the rise and fall of key Colombian smugglers and their American compadres who together flooded the United States with cocaine.  The film juxtaposes interviews with United States traffickers Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday a distributor and pilot as well as one of Blanco’s lieutenants Jorge “Rivi” Ayala with those of Miami police officers such as Al Singleton and DEA agent Palombo. All relived the days when cocaine turned Miami from a small localized city to one of the economic engines of Florida and much of Latin America.   The release of Cocaine Cowboys came two years after Blanco left jail and was deported to Colombia where she lived off her properties and other proceeds.  Public records from the 1970s documented her high-end properties; even then she portrayed herself as a businesswoman involved in real estate.

In the first of two Cocaine Cowboys, Blanco’s presence dominates the film; the men regale Corben and the viewer with tales of her love triangles and ferocity.  In the 1970s, as skyscrapers reached up to the sky in the wetlands and new Jaguars and Mercedes circulated on the highways in Miami, La madrina declared war against her competitors.  Blanco escalated the drug violence beginning in 1979 until she fled to California in 1984. In his review of Cocaine Cowboys, film critic Owen Gleiberman described Blanco in Entertainment Weekly:  Blanco is “a homicidal Colombian `Godmother’ who, no lie, makes Tony Montana look like Mother Teresa.” [1]

For almost two decades, Blanco served the Medellín cartel as a key distributor first in New York City then in Miami. The only female distributor not related to the Ochoa family, Blanco developed and maintained her own crime network that distributed countless kilos of cocaine, made piles of cash, and contributed to the death of over 200 people in the process.  Among her fellow narcos, she earned the nickname the Black Widow because she killed husbands and lovers as well as civilians who could not pay. Yet she was also known by more endearing nicknames la gordita (chubby), la gaga (the stutterer) and la madrina (godmother). Her ruthlessness and those of her peers captivated journalists, writers, television executives, and filmmakers inspiring the hit television series Miami Vice and the film Scarface. In turn, Blanco constructed her own melodrama based upon an Al Pacino’s character; she named her youngest son Michael Corleone Blanco.

Blanco, the muse for countless narco-dramas whether in true crime literature, documentary film, or popular magazines, she typically appears as an out-of-control, coked out, murderess. She entered into the popular imagination through the testimonies of other drug traffickers.  More than two decades before Cocaine Cowboys, other stories began to circulate. On June 5, 1985, Miami police arrested Florida engineer Max Mermelstein on charges of smuggling cocaine.  His arrest facilitated the entry of Blanco into the popular imagination and exposed one of the most successful female drug traffickers.  About his own life, Mermelstein told Frontline in 2005:

“I was the only American that ever sat on the council of the Medellin cartel. Living undercover and wearing disguises is necessary. There’s still an, in effect, $3 million contract on my head. I’m personally responsible for bringing 56 tons of cocaine into the United States, shipped out $300 million of their profits. I also paid out over $100 million in their expenses here in the United States. And when I decided to cooperate with the government, Escobar wanted me dead.”[2]

By becoming an informant in countless cases, Mermelstein’s testimony led to the dismantling of one of the most lucrative drug smuggling enterprises and the arrests of key members of the Ochoa family including Pablo Escobar in Colombia and men such as Robert and Munday in the United States. In 1990, his biography The Man Who Made it Snow hit the bookshelves in which Mermelstein told his story to Robin Moore author of The French Connection and the novelist Richard Smitten who after his work with Mermelstein turned to the genre of true crime.[3] In turn, Mermelstein served as a key witness in federal cases against his fellow traffickers, but he also provided much of the background for Smitten’s book on Blanco published shortly thereafter.

In The Man who Made it Snow, Mermelstein explained that he became involved in drug trafficking through his wife, a Colombian native.[4] Originally from Brooklyn, Mermelstein worked as a building and facilities engineer in resort hotels.  While working in Puerto Rico, he met his future wife.  After they married, he was introduced to many of her friends and started a second job in smuggling her relatives, and then later other Colombians, into the United States by plane.  Blanco was also involved in human smuggling and document forgeries at the same time as Mermelstein, but it appears that they did not meet. His growing circle of Colombian friends, his fluency in Spanish, and his human smuggling business drew the attention of cocaine traffickers.  A street hood from Bogotá, Rafael (Rafa) Cardona Salazar, a brutal drug trafficker, understood that the Spanish speaking Mermelstein could serve an important role for the Medellín cartel because of his contacts with American pilots through his human smuggling.[5]

A photo of Rafa in “The Man who Made it Snow.”

In his testimony to Moore and Smitten, Mermelstein’s entry into the cartel did not stem from his personal greed but as a result of his fear of Rafa. While the Ochoa family’s upper middle class background protected them from suspicion in the early years of the trade, they relied on men such as Rafa to perform their dirty work.  Rafa’s making of Mermelstein as an essential part of the Ochoa organization brought him into contact with Colombia’s survivors of violence; including his friend and associate Griselda Blanco. Like Rafa, Mermelstein argued that Blanco wore murder as a badge of honor; both killing to preserve status and honor in the organization.

In Corben’s Cocaine Cowboys, however, we get a different read of Mermelstein from Roberts and Munday who view him as a fellow traveler in the criminal association; but also someone who sold them out destroying their lives, their vast wealth, and their powerful connections in the drug world and in business and politics.  Mermelstein never gives an interview in the film to counter Roberts and Munday.  After his betrayal, he lived in the witness protection until his death in 2008.[6]  Yet, all three men agree on the brutality and mental instability of Blanco.

Despite the bravado of men such as Roberts and Munday, Corben, like Smitten, finds himself drawn to the story of Blanco because of its titillating aspects.  Corben went on to do the even more sensationalist Cocaine Cowboys: Hustlin with the Godmother about her wheeling and dealing in California and her love affair with a street dealer and thug named Charles Crosby.

What is missing in the sensationalist accounts of Blanco’s life is an analysis of her ability to survive and thrive in a dangerous criminal environment for decades.  The NYPD issued its first arrest warrant for Blanco in 1972, one year prior to the formation of the DEA.  With its formation, Palombo would be on the case. By 1975, an indictment charged her and 37 others with conspiring to manufacture, import, and distribute cocaine.[7] At the time of the indictments, the arrests of members of her crew yielded one of the largest cocaine busts in New York City history.  In the documents, members of the NYPD and the DEA, acknowledged her as instrumental to and innovative within the cocaine trade.   With that indictment, Blanco fled to Colombia as a fugitive using her old skills in document forgery to reinvent a new identity.  In the 1970s, DEA agents tracked her in Colombia assured that she would not travel to the United States.  A Colombian law rejected the extradition of a citizen to another country so U.S. authorities never filed an extradition request for Blanco.  Of course her indictment did not ensure that she stayed in Colombia.  Of the 38 people in the initial indictment, 23 became fugitives.  Many were tracked and ultimately tried, some as late as the 1990s.  In turn, many cubic feet of documents have been added to the initial court cases that are currently housed in NARA-NYC.

Blanco’s organization in New York was highly sophisticated.  She was joined by an array of people. Blanco and her second husband Alberto Bravo posed as successful business people who also worked as suppliers moving cocaine from Colombia to New York City. As in popular culture, she did design and manufactured special bras and girdles that accentuated the female figure to smuggle cocaine.  She also manufactured specialized luggage and other items to facilitate trafficking.  She recruited young women to work as mules, but also to maintain stash houses in Queens and the Bronx and to carry money to and from Colombia.  In court documents, one young woman argued that Blanco had people working in embassies in Colombia and Venezuela who assisted them with passports, visas, and other documents.

In the testimonies taken in the 1970s, Blanco emerged early as a wealthy financier of cocaine who worked with an array of people from middle class loan officers to street prostitutes.  Their networks included stash houses in the at least four of the five boroughs.  Distributions sites were along Queens Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue but also into the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.  Money was laundered through local banks in New York and New Jersey as well as Colombian businesses;   “small” deposits scattered across the tri-state area.

Because this was a major case, it challenged many of the police agents who worked on the case.  First, it dealt with cocaine when the focus in the drug war as still marijuana and heroin. To gain information, narcotics agents had a difficult time even after they planted wiretaps.  All those involved used multiple aliases, many were undocumented, they spoke only in Spanish, and they used coded language. That language included references to “beautiful children with good bones (pure cocaine with crystal rocks),” “4 children” (1/8th of a kilo), and deliveries of “white shirts” and “white skirts.”  They also employed a Colombian Pig Latin that was easily recognized and broken by any native Spanish speaker, but difficult for police officers who had picked up their Spanish on the streets.  From trial transcripts, it appears that Blanco’s case fast-tracked a couple of young native Spanish speaking officers.

In interrogations of those indicted who did not flee, the cocaine networks were also complicated.  Blanco and her crew moved cocaine through Puerto Rico and directly into JFK Airport in Queens.  As early as 1972, “Rueben,” a member of her crew, was picking up cocaine along the U.S.-Mexico border and transporting it across country to NYC.  In one recorded exchange, this approached was deemed as less risky and cheaper because of the bulk that could be moved across land.

With the 1975 indictment, Blanco fled first to Colombia and then to Miami.  In Miami she became “famous” for her brutality.  While the Miami story is presented as the narrative of her criminal career, it was in New York where she cut her teeth by demonstrating her “good bones.”  It was in New York City that she developed her successful criminal enterprise. The trial transcripts recognized that it took the NYPD years to trace the cocaine back to Blanco and Bravo since  they created such distance between themselves and the actual sale.  When discovered, she relocated her business after finding another opportunity.  In Miami, she rebuilt her organization.  Due to growing competition, further surveillance, and her fugitive status,  she resorted to greater violence.  Tried and convicted in 1985 for the New York charges,  the Miami DA’s office botched her murder conviction when secretaries engaged in phone sex with her assassin, Rivi Ayala.  After serving her sentences she, like two of her sons, was deported; all three met a similar fate in Colombia.  Few New York newspapers noted her passing with more than a brief story.  Perhaps with the new melodrama in the works with Jennifer Lopez as la madrina, Blanco’s “Queens Tale” will emerge.  Her earlier days could shed light on contemporary human and drug trafficking and its overlapping networks.


[1] Owen Gleiberman, Owen. “Cocaine Cowboys.” Entertainment Weekly, 2006.

[2] Frontline, The Godfather of Cocaine, February 14, 1995, transcript http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs/transcripts/1309.html

[3] Max Mermelstein with Robin Moore and Richard Smitten. The Man who Made it SnowBy the American Mastermind Inside the Colombia Cartel (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990); Robin Moore, The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, 13the ed.(New York: Lyon Press, 2003); and  Richard Smitten, The Godmother, (New York: Pocket Books, 1990). After his novel Twice Killed (New York: Avon Books, 1984), Smitten moved from fiction following his work with Mermelstein to publish The Godmother and his work with Ellis Rubin, Kathy: A Case of Nymphomania (Lifetime Books, 1993).

[4] Mermelstein  The Man who Made it Snow.

[5] The Medellín cartel was comprised of Pablo Escobar, José Gonzalo Rodríguez, and the Ochoa brothers: Jorge, Juan David, and Fabio.  Fabio operated more in the U.S.  The Ochoas were an upper middle class family.   The coca came from Bolivia and Peru, they processed it in Colombia, and American pilots flew it from Colombia or a drop island in the Bahamas.

[6] Editors, “Key Witness Against Cocaine Cartel Dies of Natural Causes,” The Washington Post, (September 16, 2008)

[7]. U.S. v. Parra, Gomez, Botero, Cabrera et. al. and U.S. v.  Torres, Blanco, et. al. United States District Court for the Southern District of NY, National Archive and Records Administration, NYC.