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The Hunt For The "Cocaine Godmother"

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Griselda Blanco had quite a few nicknames: the godmother, the queen of cocaine, the black widow. Regardless of what she went by she left a lasting impression on South Florida's history.

Authorities say she imported thousands of kilos into South Florida in the 1970's and 80's and killed anyone who got in her way. Recently CBS4 sat down to interview the man who took her down. DEA agent Robert Palombo spent 11 years of his life chasing a ghost.

"I don't wish death on anybody, but if anybody deserved the ultimate was her," he told CBS4's David Sutta.

On Labor Day 2012, the 69-year-old Blanco was assassinated in a butcher shop in Colombia. She had lived longer than anyone expected. She escaped jail sentences, the electric chair, and dozens of enemies eager to kill her. It was the final chapter in a story that began years ago.

In 1983, Miami Vice's Sonny and Crocket were rounding up drug dealers on television, in reality though the drug dealers were winning.

"We were outgunned by them; outnumbered," Palombo said.

Palombo started his career in New York. He seemed to gravitate to Colombian drug cases. Suddenly, he was re-assigned to a South Florida task force waging war against a bloody drug trade.

"Violence was the mainstay," Palombo said. "It was as if the cocaine distribution was a byproduct of the violence rather than vice versa."

In the aftermath of a shooting at the Dadeland Mall that left two dead, authorities discovered what they coined a war wagon. The steal reinforced armored truck, labeled Happy Time Complete Party Rentals, was loaded with a cache of weapons. Palombo had no idea it was linked to a woman named Griselda Blanco.

"Griselda never showed on the radar. Her name was mentioned but she was never physically seen by any of us." Palombo said.

He had actually been chasing the ghost of Griselda from a 1974 drug case in New York. She vanished and he assumed she was living in Colombia. It was by sheer chance he came across her in Miami when a tip came in. His partner was on duty answering a tip line.

"He happened to take a call from a woman, a Miami native who was complaining that her daughter was dating this Hispanic low-life, obviously involved in some sort of illegal activity and more than likely drugs," Palombo remembered.

Uber Blanco was the "low-life."

Palombo soon realized he was on to one of Griselda Blanco's four sons. Uber lived the high life in Turnberry Isle. With the help of a Colombian arrested in Oklahoma, now turned informant, Palombo got close to Blanco's children.

Each one bragged to the informant about how important they were according to Palombo. He recorded them using hidden microphones in an attaché.

"He was talking about how he and his brothers had really taken over the business from mom," Palombo said. "They were moving tremendous amounts of cocaine both on the West Coast and as well as Miami. And that mom had taken a semi-retirement role."

The investigation was moving along. The informant moved small amounts of money for the brothers. Forty-thousand dollars here; $50,000 there. The DEA was building a case against the Blanco brothers when a huge break came in.

"Out of the blue the informant gets a call and low and behold it's Griselda," Palombo said. "He was shocked and unnerved about the call."

He had the informant set up a meeting in California where she was. Palombo remembers the first time he saw her entering the Newport Beach Marriott lobby.

"When she turned and walked past us again; we took one look and we could see the dimples and the cleft and we just looked at each other and it was 'this is it. It's her,'" Palombo said.

After the meeting was over with the informant they didn't move in. She left them $500,000 to get to her bank accounts in Panama.

Palombo said they began to peel back her massive operation for about a year. The DEA, through the informant, began money laundering for Griselda. They moved millions of dollars for her. They tracked her violent orders.

No one knows exactly her many her henchmen killed, just that it was more than serial killers Jeffery Dahmer and Ted Bundy combined.

"Does it make a difference whether it's 50 or 100. I don't think so," Palombo said. "I would say that conservatively I would say anywhere between 75 and 100."

Their case hit a wall though when the DEA tried to get drugs from Griselda. A misunderstanding led the trail to go cold overnight. Palombo explained he had coached the informant to make the request without scaring Blanco.

"You basically want to say something to the effect that you are having a party and you need a couple people taken care of. So you need a few things and see what she says," Palombo told the informant.

When the conversation went down Griselda told the informant it wouldn't be a problem and gave them the pager number for Jorge "Riverito" Ayala. Ayala was one of Blanco's hitman. The informant met with Riverito at Victoria Station on 36th street in Miami.

Palombo said everything was going fine until the informant asked for the drugs.

"He looked at me like I had 10 heads. And he said, 'what are you talking about." Palombo told CBS4's Sutta the meeting ended abruptly. "The informant tried to connect with Griselda and she wasn't returning his calls. We became extremely upset and concerned."

Palombo's world was collapsing.

"During the time we had lost touch with her, she was giving me premature gray hair. And my wife was not very happy that I was spending all this time, long periods of time, in southern California when I had two young children," Palombo explained. "It was becoming a bit of a strain. When is this going to end? So one day I just blurted out if I ever catch her. I'm going to give her a kiss of death because she is driving me crazy."

The veteran DEA agent returned back to Blanco's weakness...her sons.

Osvaldo Blanco was a car nut. Palombo knew he visited a Beverly Hills dealership often. They sat in the Beverly Hills Willshire Hotel for days watching the dealership. When Osvaldo appeared, Palombo had his informant accidentally bump into him.

"It worked like a charm. They partied all night long," Palombo said.

They tracked bodyguards back to Griselda's home in Irvine California and early on February 17, 1985 Palombo finally moved in. With the house covered they watched as Michael Corlone, her 6-year-old son at the time, walked out the front door with a nanny.

On the front porch Griselda suddenly appeared to give him a kiss. He headed off with the nanny to the park. Griselda went back inside. Palombo said he walked up to the front door and knocked. An old woman answered. To this day he's unsure who she was but speculates it could have been her mother.

As they cleared the house, Palombo made his way up the stairs. He came upon a room and discovered Griselda sitting in bed.

"She was at that point in bed propped up reading the bible. You can't make this up. She looked up at first in a bit of a shock," Palombo said he leaned in and said, "Griselda we finally meet."

She had no clue who he was. He then delivered on his promise.

"I made her stand up and at the point I just went over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She was bewildered. Had no idea why I did it," Palombo said.

Blanco never really said anything to investigators. They found a gun on the nightstand. She never made an effort to reach for it though. She was booked and Palombo finally felt relief. He still had no idea how big the case was until he noticed what happened to crime stats.

"The fact that the homicide rate dropped dramatically after she was arrested," Palombo said.

Blanco would be sentenced to 15 years in prison on drug trafficking charges. Palombo believes the sentence was rigged. He thought the judge over the case, Eugene Spellman, played favorites with Blanco's lawyers.

"She should have received a minimum of 35 years," said Polombo.

After just 10 years Blanco was released from federal prison. By then, Miami-Dade prosecutors had three murder cases against her. Griselda appeared headed for the electric chair when the prosecution became caught up in a sex scandal with a key witness. It ended with a plea deal. She served just 7 years.

"Betrayal. That's the best way to describe it. We felt betrayed by the system," Palombo said.

He believed they shouldn't have thrown a good case away.

"The homicide prosecution was totally salvageable," he said. "There was another witness that had nothing to do with the sex case that was ready willing and able to get up and testify to the same basic evidence."

In 2004, when Griselda exited the state prison she was deported back to Colombia. He assumed she was dead the moment she landed, yet somehow she held on eight years.

The on Labor Day 2012 in Medellin a motorcycle assassin pulled up to butcher store. The cyclists with his helmet still on pulled out a gun and shot Blanco twice in the head. Palombo called it poetic justice.

"Here we have a butcher being killed in a butcher shop. By an individual who employs the very technique, the motorcycle technique that she kind of invented," Palombo said. "I mean you just can't make this up. It was the final chapter."

Palombo now works as a consultant.

As for Blanco she was buried earlier this month in the same cemetery as notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. It appeared she was out of the drug trafficking business.


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