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Griselda: Colombian drug lord ‘Cocaine Godmother’ gets Hollywood makeover

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By Yasmin Rufo

BBC News

“The only man I was ever afraid of was a woman named Griselda Blanco.” This is what infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar allegedly once said about the person who created one of the most profitable cartels in history.

A woman who had people murdered because “she didn’t like the way they looked at her”, Blanco was a ruthless criminal mastermind whose name was one of the most feared in 1970s and 80s Miami.

Now the notorious drug lord has had a Hollywood makeover as Modern Family’s Sofía Vergara joins forces with the team behind crime drama Narcos to play the leader of the criminal underworld.

Filled with high-stake dramatic shoot-outs and neon nouveau riche glamour, the six-part Netflix series Griselda presents the notorious criminal as a hard done by yet savvy and ambitious woman.

But the true story of the woman, dubbed the “cocaine godmother” and responsible for the murder of her three husbands, is far murkier.

Born in Colombia in 1943, Blanco was involved in criminal activity from the age of 11, allegedly shooting dead a wealthy boy after she kidnapped him and his parents refused to pay a ransom.

In 1964, aged 21, she illegally immigrated to New York with her three children and husband and began selling marijuana.

“It is important to remember who Griselda was early on in her life. She was an immigrant raising three kids completely alone. She had nothing, no education or tools to survive,” Vergara, who was also born in Colombia, told the BBC.

Showrunner Eric Newman said he wanted to “humanise the complex character” of Griselda Blanco as “every person has an explanation, not an excuse, but an explanation” and as a “single mother fleeing an abusive relationship, she can be relatable at times”.

“She is a woman in a man’s world, she works ten times harder to prove herself and uses her wit and intelligence to outsmart the men around her. People start out by rooting for her,” co-director Andrés Baiz added.

‘Power made her a monster’

By 1970, Blanco had ordered her first husband to be killed and moved to Miami. There she met her second husband, drug trafficker Alberto Bravo, who introduced her to an even darker side of the narcotics underworld.

Blanco’s propensity for violence and audacious approach to drug smuggling – flying young women from Colombia to the US with cocaine hidden in their bras and underwear – meant she was soon running the entire criminal enterprise.

As the Miami drug wars intensified and rival cartels violently clashed, Blanco grew more ruthless. In 1975 she shot her husband because she believed he was stealing money from her, and in 1983, she had her third husband assassinated after he left Miami with the couple’s child, Michael Corleone.

Nicknamed the Black Widow for her brutal and ruthless behaviour, Blanco’s empire boomed, and by the early 1980s she was one of the world’s richest and most feared women, overseeing the trafficking of 1.5 tonnes of cocaine to the US every month.

“I really think when Griselda first moved to Miami her intentions were all about protecting and taking care of her family, but along the way she got lost and the power and money turned her into a monster,” Vergara told the BBC.

In the early 1980s Blanco rejected a $15m from a rival cartel to give her empire up.

‘Relied on misfits’

Despite ruling the narco empire in Miami with an iron fist for two decades, Blanco was acutely aware that as a woman in an industry run almost exclusively by chauvinistic men, her position was precarious. At one point she allowed a man to front her business as local dealers would “only accept a deal if it came out of a man’s mouth”.

Following his arrest for a murder, Blanco chose to front the business herself and used her outsider position to her advantage.

Between April and September 1980, approximately 135,000 Cubans immigrated to the US. Known as the Marielitos, some of them were already involved in criminal gangs, drug trafficking and contract killing.

Blanco capitalised on this and recruited them to work for her. Her cartel developed its own group of hitmen, Pistoleros, who became known for their motorcycle assassinations.

Blanco “is an outsider and recruits all these other outsiders around her”, said Baiz, and in an industry where trust was difficult to gain and even harder to keep, she “knew what she was doing”.

“These characters are all misfits, they don’t belong to the normal standards of society. Griselda knows this and makes them feel like they are part of her family,” Baiz added.

It was Blanco’s status as a misfit that appealed to Vergara as she “understood” some of what she went through.

“I am Colombian, a mother and an immigrant. As a woman Griselda was judged and nowadays I know because of my accent I have to work extra hard and I get less opportunities,” she said.

‘A woman could never be this evil’

By the mid-1980s, Blanco’s criminal empire began to unravel and her reign of terror came to an abrupt halt when she was arrested in Irvine, California.

But how did she manage to spend two decades turning Miami into her drug fuelled playground without getting caught? The team behind the show put it down to her gender.

“Because she was a woman she was able to get away with a lot and disappear when she needed to – no one would expect a woman to be running a cartel that size. People think a woman could never be this evil,” Vergara said.

And while male-run drug enforcement agencies were adamant a woman could not be behind the narcos trade, someone was pursuing that exact line of enquiry.

Despite being routinely dismissed and used only for the purpose of translating Spanish for her colleagues, June Hawkins, a female intelligence analyst in the Miami police department, was intent on catching Blanco from as early as the mid-1970s.

Newman called Hawkins an essential part of the story. “She is a mirror to Griselda, she is also a young single mother of Latin descent working in a world that devalued women. She serves to show audiences that what Griselda chose to do was not her only option.”

What happened to Griselda Blanco?

On 17 February 1985, Blanco was arrested in her home and was found guilty of manufacturing, importing, and distributing cocaine. She was additionally charged with three counts of first-degree murder and spent two decades behind bars.

During her prison sentence, three of her sons were killed. Once released in 2004, she was deported to Colombia and led a quiet life.

On 3 September 2012, aged 69, she was shot dead by a man on a motorbike in Medellín. The drive-by shooting was a copycat of the assassination style that she coined during her reign.

“Her killing shows the true level of hatred towards her. By 2012, she was a harmless woman, living as a recluse and three out of her four children were dead,” Newman told the BBC.

Baiz said the story of the chain-smoking, gun-yielding killer is a “perfect arch”.

“She comes from nothing, experiences these incredible highs but by the time you get to the end of the story it is a tragedy that ends with total loss.”

Despite the gripping saga of power that was Blanco’s life, she is often forgotten about in the history books. Even Vergara, who grew up in Colombia during the narco traffic era, said she “had never heard of this woman” and after learning about her life thought it was “impossible” that this was a true story.

“This is why I wanted to play Griselda. She is a mother, villain, lover and killer all at the same time. She above everyone shows how complex humans can be.”

Griselda is on Netflix from 25 January.

SOURCE: BBC NEWS