Colombia’s “cocaine queen” living in obscurity when she was shot dead

Griselda Blanco was responsible for drug mayhem in Miami and Medellín

Griselda Blanco, who was known as the Cocaine Queen, was gunned down on September 3
Griselda Blanco, who was known as the Cocaine Queen, was gunned down on September 3EFE

On February 10, a former hitman known as "El Mono" (the Monkey), who is now free after serving a 12-year sentence in New York, heard someone call out at the offices of Medellín's land registry: "Griselda Blanco, go to the window, please."

From a chair, a short, frumpy, elderly lady in tailored trousers, with gray hair and wearing round dark glasses, walked up to the window. El Mono could not believe what he was seeing. "There cannot be two Griselda Blancos. There is only one Griselda Blanco and she is the Cocaine Queen," he thought while pondering whether he should greet her or just continue about his business.

El Mono first met Griselda in 1976, when he was 17. The last time he saw "the aunt," or "the godmother," as she was also known, was more than 30 years ago at a party she organized for the purpose of murdering four special guests.

"She had a beautiful ranch house near the village of San Cristóbal [11 kilometers north of Medellín]," he recalls. Halfway through the party and with the main hall full, Griselda asked that the four boys be killed because they were suspected of treason. "They were shot, and the bodies were loaded onto a truck and taken to a garbage dump," he continued. And, in what seemed like a scene from The Godfather , Griselda announced to her guests: "Nothing has happened here, so let us continue with the party."

One of her husbands, Alberto Bravo, died in a shootout with her

It is difficult for El Mono to say who was more cold-blooded: Pablo Escobar or Griselda Blanco.

Blanco was born on February 15, 1943, in Cartagena. She arrived as a teenager in Medellín's Antioquia neighborhood and it was there she met her first husband, a man who went by the name of Darío Pestañas.

In that suburb, Griselda began her cocaine business at a time when Escobar was just an apprentice smuggler. In the Antioquia neighborhood they say that there was a very famous shoemaker called Toño, who the godmother once instructed: "Toño, I need you to take these shoes, and this powder in the heels. And afterwards I need you to do the same with my husband's shoes."

Whether the story is true or not, Griselda started trafficking large shipments of cocaine to Miami and became rich overnight. Her family bought Toyotas and BMWs, while her children were able to go to high-priced schools during a time in which the drug trade wasn't the scourge that it is today.

Stories of Griselda's eccentricities have flourished in books and documentaries. One author said in a profile that she once purchased diamonds that belonged to Eva Perón. Carlos, a veteran journalist, who prefers not to use his full name for this article, met her in 1981, when he began high school.

"I studied with her nephews: Mauricio and Edison Mahomed. Once, we were taken to see the aunt's house. The most impressive thing was how the door opened with a remote control. That, at that time, was a crazy thing."

But it was her relationship with her husbands that evoked the evil myth of Griselda. How many husbands were killed? "Killed? [...] Only two. Another was found dead, but they never managed to find out the truth," says El Mono.

Carlos Trujillo, a document forger and father of three of Griselda's children, died in 1970. Then came Alberto Bravo, who died in a shootout with her. A fourth son, named Michael Corleone in honor of The Godfather films, killed her lover Jesús Castro.

In those years the Cocaine Queen never stopped trafficking. She had headquarters not only in Tallahassee, Kendall and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but also New York. Her name, or rather her trail, became an obsession for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And on April 30, 1975 for the first time, a US court would file charges against her.

On February 17, 1985, DEA special agent Robert Pombo finally caught up with her in Irving, California. While she was serving time she had tried to organize the kidnapping of John F. Kennedy Jr. After 15 years in prison, and having paid a $25,000 fine, she was released in 2004 and deported to Colombia. No one knew what became of her - journalists were unable to track down the Cocaine Queen - until that day in February when El Mono heard her name at the land registry. He decided to greet her and she gave him her phone number. But he never called. He decided it was better not to know anything about Griselda Blanco, because after so many battles, he was sure that she herself would be killed sooner or later.

The 69-year-old's demise came on September 3. Blanco had gone to the other part of the city to buy some meat. Nobody knew that this apparently friendly and genial old lady was partly responsible for the terror that rocked Medellín, Miami and New York for nearly two decades.

There was the Cocaine Queen, self-absorbed, living in anonymity the final years of her life, and sitting on a stool in a meat-packing house in Bethlehem district, southwest of Medellín. Investigators are still perplexed why Griselda ordered 300,000 pesos' (about 130 euros) worth of meat that day.

It was 3pm when a young man entered, without removing his motorcycle helmet, looking around until he found Griselda. Then he pulled out a revolver and shot her twice in the head. A half-hour later, Griselda died at a nearby hospital, neither a multimillionaire still in her pomp, nor penniless as in her youth.

"Poor? Listen to this: you and I are poor," said a police officer. "She went around driving her mazdita [a black Mazda 6] and collecting the money from the leases on the properties she still owned. She was also selling a building for 1,500 million pesos."

Two days later her body was placed in a casket decorated in golden Arabesque designs. She was buried in the Jardines de Montesacro cemetery - the same resting place as that of Pablo Escobar. Two buses filled with neighborhood kids from Antioquia - the suburb in which Griselda worked as a prostitute and drug dealer, and won a reputation as a husband killer but also where she passed around gifts to needy children at Christmas - came to pay their respects.

Griselda became one of those embarrassing legends that were spawned during Colombia's shameful past. Mourners passed around a bottle of aguardiente , crying: "Auntie, don't leave us."

Colombian journalist José Guarnizo has been an investigative reporter for El Colombiano and in 2011 won the King of Spain Journalism Prize.