If the urban legend is to be believed, there was only one person the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar was terrified of: Griselda Blanco, the self-styled “Cocaine Godmother” of Miami.
Through her connections to the Medellín Cartel, her name repeatedly came up when Eric Newman – creator of Netflix series Narcos – was researching his smash hit show about the hunt for Colombia’s most feared drug lord.
“It was clear she was someone Escobar had concerns about; he had an equal amount of respect and fear for her”, Newman told Zavvi. “We found her a captivating character, to the extent that we couldn’t pull her into the Narcos universe – to do justice to her story, you’d need to spend a whole series intimately focusing on her rise to power, she couldn’t just be a background figure.”
Newman is now finally bringing her story to the screen via the six-episode miniseries Griselda, with Modern Family star Sofía Vergara portraying the Colombian expat from her arrival in the drug underworld, to her fearsome rise to the top of the ladder. As one of the only women to find power in a male dominated ecosystem, it’s surprising that she’s largely been forgotten, relative to the likes of Escobar, which was part of the appeal to Newman for telling this story.
“It’s impossible not to acknowledge how unique it is for a woman to reach that level in drug trafficking, this exclusively male dominated realm. As storytellers, how she did this is undeniably fascinating; how did she manage to get to the top of that food chain, whilst everybody in her orbit underestimated her for years?
“The core theme of the show for us was that a woman has to work twice as hard to get what a man works half as hard for. In this world, if you’re a man, you become a boss by doing that – if you’re a woman, you’re a bitch.
“That double standard dogs her throughout her life, even posthumously in death, where the times that she is remembered, it’s as a beast who killed her way to the top. We don’t believe that’s true, and the goal of the show is to demonstrate otherwise.”
However, if this sounds like a misguided approach to telling this story, don’t worry: this isn’t a simplistic celebration of women’s wrongs, designed to get audiences to shout “slay queen!” at the TV with every organised hit. Instead, as with Narcos, Newman aims to suck audiences in by offering a seemingly empathetic character, twisting the knife as much as possible once you’re invested in her struggle.
He continued: “I hope audiences root for her up to the point where it seems like there’s a happy ending ready for her to take – and then, you’re stuck with her once her nature forbids her from making that exit. The nature of these stories, and part of their allure for me as a storyteller, is how people press their luck once they’re in the winner’s circle; they think they’re invincible, and always lose by sticking it out.
“It’s one of the consequences of telling stories about criminals – because we show the rise, some people assume we’re glorifying this as an aspirational journey, even though it’s always going to end up horribly. If people see this and think this is aspirational, then I’m worried about where they want to end up in life!”
If you Google Griselda Blanco, the first image you’ll get is her prison mugshot – which couldn’t look further from Vergara. However, the actress was passionate about getting this role, approaching Newman before he even got to the casting stage.
“We never considered that we needed an actress who would look exactly like her, as our hope was to find someone who would give a tremendous performance that would make people forget who she was”, the creator added.
Andrés Baiz, another Narcos veteran who directed every episode of Griselda, added: “I would say she does resemble her, not physically, but in terms of her life story. Both are Colombians who emigrated to the States with almost nothing, and achieved enormous success.
“Griselda is the negative example, with Sofia being the polar opposite – but I think that was what appealed to her about playing this character. She can relate to being an immigrant and creating something extraordinary.”
Addressing the elephant in the room, that this new series appears dramatically similar to their prior Netflix hit, Baiz was clear about the ways in which he attempted to distinguish the show from Narcos, even as it dives into the same Colombian drug underworld.
“With Narcos, we wanted the show to have more of a documentary feel; a voiceover inviting you in to the true story, and archival footage that gave you the feeling that you were seeing history unfold. But for this series, we needed to depart from all of that – the character study is more intimate, while the world around her has far more absurdity to it.
“I’m obsessed with anti-heroes because they tell us something about human nature, and many uncomfortable truths about ourselves. If you see my filmography beyond these two series, you’ll see these complex characters in every corner, as I find them so essential and compelling as a storyteller – I just want to continue exploring figures like this.”
Many aspects of Blanco’s story are stranger than fiction, and when researching for the series, Newman encountered several urban legends about her which he couldn’t verify; irresistible details that he wanted to include, but didn’t want to stretch the truth.
“You hear many juicy stories about her childhood that are probably apocryphal, but there was a story from later on, during her New York period, which we originally considered beginning the first episode with. To mark the American Bicentennial in 1976, countries from around the world sent boats to in the harbour in front of the Statue of Liberty – Colombia sent a 19th century ship called the Gloria, and legend has it, Griselda’s first and largest shipment of cocaine was hidden inside.
“There’s no way to verify that this happened, but it would have been a fun thing to include; all this coke, hiding in plain sight!”
One quirk which is verified is her increased obsession with The Godfather as she gained further power, embracing the “Godmother” nickname, and even naming her son Michael Corleone. This is what Newman labels the biggest “tragedy” of her life, stating: “I think that she fundamentally misunderstood that story, it’s a tragedy about a man who wants to set himself apart from his family, only to discover he’s a sociopath just like them, losing everyone he loves in the process.
“But Griselda seems to overlook that; she celebrates the iconography of it, clearly misunderstanding the tragic nature of the story, and that in many ways seals her fate”.
The series naturally ends with Griselda facing justice, but her story doesn’t end there. Many years later, she became a born again Christian after leaving prison, and was assassinated in 2012 in scenes that mimicked the hits she put out on competitors many years earlier.
In short, there’s enough juicy material there to ensure this doesn’t have to remain a miniseries if Newman wants to return to this world.
“I’d be thrilled to work with this exact same team again”, he concluded, “but the six hours we made together stands perfectly on it’s own. I really think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
All episodes of Griselda will be streaming on Netflix from Thursday, 25th January.