Eric Newman and Sofia Vergara attend Netflix's Griselda US Premiere on January 23, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Netflix)
There is a scene in the recently-released megahit Netflix series Griselda in which the notorious female drug trafficker, played here by Colombian actress Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), sits in the passenger seat of a car, a handgun clasped in her lap. She pants and looks out of the window towards a house where she just killed the hitman of a rival narco. She shot him in the head after backing out of chopping it off with a machete—a revenge kill for her female employees, former sex workers, who were brutally decapitated by him.
In the driver's seat next to Blanco sits her bodyguard Dario (Alberto Guerra), somewhere in Miami. He reaches over and takes the gun from her, subsequently clasping her hand in his. Their eyes meet and she smiles slightly as he turns the key to start the car and their getaway. The scene is soaked in tension, sex, and even a touch of romance.But the fact of the matter is that by the time that the real Griselda Blanco, perhaps the most famous drug-trafficking matriarch of all time, settled in Miami, the period for which she is most famous, she had been in the crime world for most of her life. “The real life of Griselda is far more fascinating than the interpretation on Netflix,” Elaine Carey,a historian and author of “Women Drug Traffickers: Mules, Bosses, and Organized Crime,” which documents the history of women drug traffickers in Latin America. Born in early 1940s Colombia, Blanco began life in a country in the grip of mass social unrest and violence—known as La Violencia—quickly learning the lesson that power was often achieved through violent acts. She allegedly committed her first murder aged just 11, when she killed a boy that she had kidnapped after the ransom money didn’t come through. She graduated from pickpocketing, counterfeiting documents and human smuggling to the international cocaine trade when it began to boom in the 1970s.Given that, it seems unlikely her hand would have shaken at shooting a rival in revenge, nor would she have been likely to shy away from cutting off the head of the killer of a threatening organization with a machete. Nor would she have agonized over the accidental shooting of a young child, who got caught in the crossfire of an assassination she ordered on one of her own heavies in a crack-fuelled paranoid rage.
These would have been regular challenges in the life of the real Griselda Blanco, who never lived anywhere but the criminal underworld. Born into grinding poverty - some versions of her history say her mother was a sex worker - Blanco came up from the bottom in 1940s Colombia, and according to historians was involved in crime basically from the time she could walk.“As regarding her violence, as the drug trade yielded more money, there was more competition. She had to be tough, and she was from her childhood. She was also very smart and good with people. Mostly, other people killed for her. Like with drugs, she created distance between herself and the crimes.”The Netflix series focuses on Blanco’s wins and losses in Miami’s cocaine market, but before that Blanco had spent at least a decade running her cocaine business in New York and the northeast of the U.S. after moving to the U.S from her base in Colombia.“Griselda arrived in Miami wealthy. She made millions of dollars in human smuggling and running drugs to NYC. Her investment in factories to create padded undergarments began long before her life in Miami,” says Carey.The idea that it wasn’t until more than a decade later Miami that Blanco blipped onto the radar of the authorities is also a fantasy.“She was being tracked by the DEA and the US State Department for years. As a master document forger, she has false identities so she moved around the hemisphere. She does not arrive in Miami destitute needing to work as a travel agent,” Carey said.Vergara’s Blanco (the actor’s production company Latin World Entertainment is behind the series) offers a softer, more compassionate version of the ruthless trafficker than reality would dictate. Entertainment never got in the way of a true story, and Blanco’s true tale is perhaps too much for audiences to swallow whole.