Griselda Blanco died the way she lived: gunned down by two hitmen racing by on motorcycles on a street outside a butcher shop in her hometown of Medellin, Colombia, in 2012. By then, she was a bloated 69-year-old who’d paid a physical price for her years of drug dealing, lavish living, and cocaine consumption.
She was a key operative in Miami’s cocaine trade in late 1970s and early 1980s. With a taste for flamboyant living, La Madrina, or the Godmother of Cocaine, had been implicated in the deaths of all three of her husbands and convicted of three murders, including that of a toddler. She served two decades in New York and Florida on convictions of racketeering and murder, and had been deported in 2004. She’d even been credited with coming up with the idea of drive-by motorcycle murders—the very method that murdered her.
“It’s some kind of poetic justice that she met an end that she delivered to so many others,” Professor Bruce Bagley, head of the University of Miami’s department of international studies and author of the book Drug Trafficking in the Americas, said to The Guardian shortly after her death in 2012. “She had lingering enemies almost everywhere you look. What goes around comes around.”
Griselda Blanco Restrepo was born in Cartagena, Colombia, on February 15, 1943. Abused as a child, she turned early to a life of crime, which included pickpocketing, prostitution, and by some accounts kidnapping a wealthy boy for ransom—and killing him when his family refused to pay. She married a criminal while still a teenager, and had with him three children before divorcing him—and later ordering his murder. All three of their sons would ultimately be killed before she herself died.
In the early 1970s, she teamed up with drug trafficker Alberto Bravo, professionally and personally, later marrying him. They became operatives in Medellin’s famous drug cartel when it began the enormously profitable criminal enterprise of smuggling cocaine to New York, Miami, and Southern California. Blanco was known for her devious creativity—she smuggled drugs in secret compartments sewn into undergarments she manufactured. By the mid-1970s, she had amassed a fortune, set up a home base in Queens, New York, and risen in rank to rival such notorious kingpins as Pablo Escobar. Her distribution network shipped 1,500 kilograms of coke a month, which some estimate made her as much as $80 million dollars a month, according to the New York Post. She sat atop an organization of cold-blooded henchmen who didn’t hesitate to execute rivals or potential witnesses and had earned a reputation as a ruthless leader and her own nickname, La Madrina, or the Godmother.
But Blanco was distrustful of her second husband, and in 1975 she confronted Bravo in a Bogota parking lot over millions missing from their consortium. She pulled a pistol on him, he pulled an Uzi on her. Remarkably, she suffered only a minor stomach wound from the ensuing shootout. He—and six bodyguards—died. This earned her another nickname, Black Widow.
With her third husband, Dario Sepulveda, she had a son whom she named after the main character in the classic Godfather series, Michael Corleone Blanco. But when she discovered Sepulveda was openly cheating on her, she had him assassinated in Colombia as well, by thugs she’d hired to pose as fake cops. In 1983, they pulled over Sepulveda’s car and opened fire, killing him. Little Michael, 5 years old, was in the backseat.
By then, the Drug Enforcement Agency had launched a campaign to entrap Blanco, called “Operation Banshee.” In 1975, the DEA nabbed 150 kilos of coke and indicted Blanco and her associates, but she was out of reach, back in Colombia. The DEA continued to compile a dossier, linking her to several murders. She returned to Miami in the 1980s, during an epic cocaine-fueled crime wave that came to be known as the Miami Drug War.
“She was unusual all right. She had a degree of ruthlessness that we hadn’t seen before,” Al Singleton of the Miami Dade police force told the New York Post. “All the cocaine-related violence we had down here in the 1980s, well, Griselda Blanco was very much a key player in that scene.”
Finally in 1985, the DEA nabbed her at a house where she’d moved with son Michael in Irvine, California.
Blanco was tried and convicted in 1985 in New York of conspiracy to manufacture, import, and distribute cocaine, for which she was sentenced 15 years. The New York Post reported that court records from the time revealed Blanco was a drug addict, forced both men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and counted as her favorite possessions a machine gun, Eva Peron’s pearls, and a tea set once owned by the Queen of England.
In 1994, she was tried in Florida for ordering murders that resulted in three deaths: that of two drug dealers and the 2-year-old son of a third conspirator. Blanco’s former lieutenant and key witness Jorge “Rivi” Ayala told police: “At first she was real mad because we missed the father, but when she heard we had gotten the son by accident, she said she was glad, that they were even,” according to the Guardian.
The case against Blanco was undermined when Ayala was found to be having phone sex with secretaries in the state attorney’s office. Some speculated the hitman had sabotaged the case on purpose, fearing for his life. In a plea bargain, Blanco received a 10-year sentence. She was released in June 2004 and deported to Colombia.
On September 3, 2012, Blanco, then 69, was leaving a butcher shop in Medellin when two motorcycle hitmen roared by, guns blazing. They shot her twice in the head, killing her instantly.
That a woman had managed such “success” in such a male-dominated “business” fascinated storytellers in print and on screen. Her story was the subject of the book The Godmother: The True Story of the Hunt for the Most Bloodthirsty Female Criminal in Our Time, by Richard Smitten, and the 2008 documentary, Cocaine Cowboys: Hustlin’ With the Godmother. And in 2016, it was announced that HBO was developing a film about Blanco’s life with Jennifer Lopez.
“The danger is she will be remembered not for her cold-heartedness and brutality,” Professor Bagley told the Guardian, “but for being a woman entrepreneur in an emerging field dominated by men.”