'Godmother' Of Cocaine Trade Murdered In Colombia

Griselda Blanco was one of the first and one of the most violent Colombian drug smugglers in the 1970s and 80s. She was shot dead this week in Medellin by an unidentified gunman. Blanco was 69. For more on her life, David Greene talks to Billy Corben, the director of the movie Cocaine Cowboys.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Before "Scarface" - the Al Pacino version of "Scarface," where he played a cocaine dealer in the 1980s - there was Griselda. Griselda Blanco was one of the first and one of the most violent, big Colombian drug smugglers, described in the documentary "Cocaine Cowboys."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COCAINE COWBOYS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you don't deliver, she's going to put a hit on you. She was the biggest back then. She was the godmother of the cocaine trade.

INSKEEP: Griselda Blanco was shot dead in Colombia this week. For more on her life and death, David Greene spoke with the director of "Cocaine Cowboys," Billy Corben.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So, the godmother of the cocaine trade - and in some ways, I feel like this woman was the most notorious drug lord that many of us, including me, knew very little about. Where did she come from?

BILLY CORBEN: Well, she's from Colombia. She was born into and grew up in the poverty-stricken mountains of Medellin, Colombia, childhood friends, in fact, with Pablo Escobar, a relationship that would serve her well later when she got into the cocaine trade, first in Colombia, then in Queens, New York and eventually in Miami, where her business really blew up. She smuggled in at least six kilos of cocaine on the tall ship Gloria, which the Colombian government had sent to Miami eventually to participate in a race to New York Harbor to celebrate America's Bicentennial.

GREENE: Wait a minute: Colombia was sending a boat to help celebrate the American Bicentennial, and this woman was able to get six kilos of cocaine onboard?

CORBEN: At least six kilos, because the boat was stopping in Miami first, en route to this boat race.

GREENE: Unbelievable. And how did Griselda Blanco, this woman, become such a force?

CORBEN: I'd say she was ambitious. And I'd say to be a woman in that era in the cocaine trade, the definition of the word ambitious would include a level of brutality that would have to far surpass even the men who are involved in the trade.

GREENE: Is there one of her notorious crimes on the list that really sticks out to you that you think about often?

CORBEN: Well, there's quite a few, but one that I think about quite often occurred at the Miami International Airport in the middle of the afternoon in the international terminal. In fact, it was a man by the name of Papo Mejia, who she was in an ongoing battle with. And Papo Mejia, they got word, was returning from Colombia, where he had just done battle with some of Griselda's hitmen, and he...

GREENE: This is a rival trafficker, someone who she was a rival with.

CORBEN: Yes. And he came off a flight from Colombia into the Miami International Airport. And Griselda Blanco had sent a man by the name of Miguel Perez. And she had given him a vintage World War II bayonet, and it was her desire that Papo be stabbed in the middle of the Miami International Airport as he was coming through Customs. And her reasoning, according to people who were there at the time, was that the man was a pig, and she wanted him stabbed like a pig.

GREENE: You know, Griselda Blanco, she was very inventive. I mean, there was something I read about specially designed underwear to do smuggling.

CORBEN: Inventive - that's a diplomatic adjective...

GREENE: Should have used a stronger word, perhaps.

CORBEN: ...to describe her. Sure. Legend has it that she owned and opened factories specifically to design this underwear with these secret compartments for smuggling cocaine in.

GREENE: Well, something else she is at least credited with inventing was the execution by way of someone on motorcycle, you know, shooting a victim, then quickly escaping. And it's astounding, because it sounds like this is exactly how she herself was killed this past week.

CORBEN: It really is incredible. She was murdered 3 o'clock in the afternoon, broad daylight, public place, outside a butcher shop. Two men on a motorcycle drive up. The man on the back gets off, close range, shoots her twice in the head, gets back on the motorcycle, and they buzz off into the busy afternoon traffic in Medellin. And this was something that was extraordinarily common, and regrettably common, in South Florida back in the late '70s and early '80s. And Griselda Blanco is credited by law enforcement and the media with pioneering these motorcycle assassinations.

GREENE: Do we know who killed her?

CORBEN: I don't know that we'll ever know who killed her, even if we ever know who killed her. Griselda Blanco was an iconic figure in the '80s. She's an even more iconic figure now. In fact, there's a great many rumors and legends that surround her life. And I think her death will be a part of that ongoing legend-making.

GREENE: You know, when some of us watch movies about villains, one of the strange emotions that I feel like we can get sometime is even though someone can be so blood-thirsty, there are moments when you have this weird feeling of sympathy. Is there anything sympathetic about her story?

CORBEN: Well, one story that was cut out of the movie, actually, Jorge "Rivi" Ayala was a handsome hitman who had worked for Griselda for a great many years. Rivi's young daughter was involved in a car accident where she was very, very badly injured. And as soon as Griselda heard about it, she appeared at the hospital and took care of everything, was paying for all the medical bills in cash, ensured that she had the most comfortable room and that everything was taken care of.

She cared a lot about family. She cared a lot, in recent years, about how her poor choices in life really destroyed her own family. And I think she had that kind of Don Corleone-esque way about her, which, in fact, might very well have been inspired by the movie "The Godfather." And that movie had a profound enough effect on her that she named her youngest child after Don Corleone's youngest.

GREENE: Billy Corben, thank you so much for talking to us. We appreciate it.

CORBEN: Thank you.

GREENE: Billy Corben is the director of the documentary, "Cocaine Cowboys." And he was talking to us about the life and death of Griselda Blanco. He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami.

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