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Who was the real Griselda Blanco: Cocaine Grandmother?

Police mugshot of Griselda Blanco
Image: A 1997 police mugshot of Griselda Blanco | IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo | Background:

Sofia Vergara has made the unlikely leap from Modern Family to a notorious crime family in a gritty TV drama about Griselda Blanco, the murderous Colombian ‘queenpin’ who invented a new way of killing her competitors. Here’s everything you need to know about the woman they called the ‘Black Widow’.

Starting young

Although she was born in the coastal Colombian city of Cartagena in 1943, Griselda was just three years old when she moved with her mother to Medellin, the place that would one day become notorious as a hub of the international drug trade.

Here, young Griselda endured a brutal slum upbringing, suffering beatings at the hands of her alcoholic mother. She also seemed to show a capacity for extreme violence before she was even a teenager. According to one oft-told story, she kidnapped a child from an upscale part of the city and then shot him dead when his parents didn’t pay the ransom.

Making money as a thief and sex worker, Griselda hooked up with a petty criminal named Carlos Trujillo, who became her first husband. To say it wasn’t a great relationship is an understatement – a business dispute led her to have him killed after their divorce.

Rise of the queenpin

Moving to New York City in 1964, Griselda dabbled in selling marijuana and graduated to cocaine in partnership with her second husband, drug trafficker Alberto Bravo. In a canny entrepreneurial move, Griselda devised a range of lingerie decked out with secret pockets so that women could work as drug mules. Produced in a Colombian factory, the garments helped make Griselda one of the most powerful cocaine traffickers of the early 70s.

Griselda basked in the lifestyle of an underworld leader and even named her youngest son Michael Corleone after the mob boss in The Godfather. But things almost went awry for her in 1975, when she was indicted on drug conspiracy charges. She had a contingency plan in the form of a private jet which was kept fully staffed and on standby at all times. She used this to make a quick getaway back to South America.

The empire builder

Soon after returning to Colombia, Griselda killed her husband in a dramatic shootout. Believing him to be skimming millions from their illicit business, Griselda confronted him in a nightclub car park, whipped a pistol out from her ostrich-skin boot, and gunned him down. He managed to let off some rounds from his sub-machine gun, wounding her in the stomach.

Griselda survived and thrived, taking a new husband named Dario Sepulveda and audaciously returning to the United States. She flew under the radar of law enforcement by settling in Florida. However, it also helped that the now drug-ravaged Griselda bore little resemblance to the photos they had on file.

Despite her reckless, messy lifestyle, her drug distribution network had grown to immense proportions, raking in enough to make her a billionaire.

An unrepentant killer

Griselda maintained her grip on this lucrative empire through sheer ruthlessness, with Miami fast becoming a blood-soaked battlefield. ‘She would kill anybody who displeased her,’ an attorney at the US Department of Justice would later say. ‘Because of a debt, because they screwed up on a shipment, or she didn’t like the way they looked at her.’

Her henchmen, known as the Pistoleros, would carry out sudden hits using a method that Griselda is said to have pioneered: namely, drive-by shootings by killers on motorbikes. But perhaps the most notorious incident of her reign was the Dadeland Mall Massacre.

One July afternoon in 1979, assassins burst into a liquor store at the mall, spraying bullets at a prominent Colombian drug trafficker and his bodyguard. The two men were left dead, while several bystanders were injured. The hitmen made their escape in a delivery van marked with the words ‘Happy Time Complete Party Supply’, which was later found by police and described as a ‘war wagon’ on account of all the guns and bulletproof vests inside.

Griselda didn’t simply mete out such violence for pragmatic, ‘strictly business’ purposes. Stories abound of genuinely sadistic or vindictive behaviour, with Griselda forcing people to have sex at gunpoint, and allegedly having eight strippers executed because they’d slept with her third husband. It almost goes without saying she also had Sepulveda killed later on.

The downfall of the Black Widow

Griselda’s orgies of violence came to an end when she was finally snared by the authorities in 1985. She was initially found guilty of drug offences, but additional murder convictions were also secured while she was in prison.

The once-terrifying queenpin, who suffered a heart attack in jail and was said to be a born-again Christian, emerged from captivity in 2004 and was deported to her native Colombia. It was widely assumed the now weakened, vulnerable Griselda would be swiftly bumped off by one of her many enemies. In fact, she went on to live a quiet life for quite some time before the inevitable occurred.

Stepping out of a butcher’s shop in 2012, she was gunned down by a hitman on a motorbike, who was employing the very assassination technique she had herself popularised. The ‘cocaine godmother’, perhaps the wealthiest and deadliest female criminal ever to have lived, was dead at the age of 69.