Murder of Miami’s ‘Cocaine Queen’ Offers Teaching Moment

The Truth of the Drug War Won’t Be Found in Hollywood or the Mainstream Media — Which Both Work From the Same Tired Script

Griselda Blanco, 69, was cut down in front of a butcher shop in Medellin, Colombia, in early September by a middle-aged man who was delivered to the murder scene on the back of a motorcycle — and who calmly, methodically, jumped off the back of that bike, held a gun to Blanco’s head, and pumped two bullets into her brain.

Blanco, well prior to her death, had been pumped up as a rock star of the drug war by the US mainstream media and various Hollywood-inspired films, such as the Cocaine Cowboys documentary. In fact, at the time of her death, several feature films about her life as a big-time cocaine dealer and killer in Miami in the 1970s and early 1980s were reportedly in the works — including one in which movie star Jennifer Lopez is seeking to play the leading role as the “Narco Queen” in hopes of winning an Oscar, according to Fox News Latino.

But Blanco, like so many other US-media created narco anti-heroes, is more fiction than reality, and a prime example of how US “news” coverage of the drug war has become essentially indistinguishable from the fiction manufactured in Tinsel Town.

Baruch Vega, a long-time CIA asset who, in the 1990s and early 2000s, helped to broker cooperating-source deals on behalf of US law enforcement agencies and the CIA with dozens of major Colombian narco-traffickers, describes Blanco as, at best, a mid-level player in the cocaine business during her prime.

“She was made out to be the queen of cocaine, but there were much more powerful people,” Vega says. “She was responsible for killing a lot of people [street lore puts the number at a couple hundred], but she wasn’t the biggest killer. The biggest hit man at the time [in Miami cocaine wars in the early 1980s] was a Venezuelan named Amilcar Rodriquez. Many of the people that Blanco claimed she killed, he was responsible for killing, but he was happy to let her take the credit.”

Nonetheless, Blanco had made a long list of deadly enemies by the time she was 69 — after serving years in a US prison prior to being deported in 2004 back to her native land of Colombia. And it is the still-open question of who assassinated her on the streets of Medellin last month that opens a door to the past, to the obscured history of the drug war that you will not read about in the New York Times or see exposed on CNN, or even in a Hollywood film — precisely because it is not fiction.

The Cocaine Coup

One murder scene that Blanco’s fingerprints are all over, most observers agree, is the Dadeland Mall shootout in Miami in 1979, which left two people dead in the wake of a barrage of bullets in front of a liquor store. The assassins in that hit job worked for Blanco, and one of the men left dead, not reported until this time, was the father of a brutal Colombian killer and drug dealer named Papo Mejia (Luis Fernando Arcila Mejia), according to Mike Levine, a retired DEA agent who was working some of the biggest deep undercover cases for the agency in the 1970s and 1980s — both in the US and South America.

One of those cases, dubbed Operation Hun, targeted major Bolivian and Colombian narco-traffickers, including Mejia. But Levine, author of a detailed and revelatory nonfiction drug-war book, The Big White Lie, insists that, due to CIA intervention and complicity in the drug trade, most of the targets of Operation Hun walked free, with a few exceptions, such as Mejia — who was ultimately convicted of narco-trafficking-related crimes, sentenced to a couple decades in a US prison and, upon his release in the early 2000s, deported to Colombia.

But prior to his arrest in the early 1980s, Mejia himself was the target of a Blanco assassination attempt — the two were bitter rivals in Miami’s cocaine street wars — one in which the sicario stabbed Mejia some 10 times with a rusty bayonet blade, in broad daylight, at Miami International Airport, shortly after Mejia had debarked from a flight from Colombia. Mejia survived. But the attack allowed DEA — who to that point had lost track of him — to arrest him on charges related to Operation Hun. The key cooperating source in that DEA undercover operation was a beautiful and deadly Bolivian named Sonia Atala — who, by any measure, was the true “Cocaine Queen” of the 1980s. She worked with Levine, posing as his lover, as part of Operation Hun — and for whom the operation was named (“Atala” the Hun; DEA humor). Atala also happened to be a key CIA asset, according to Levine.

“Of all the drug barons in Bolivia, Sonia’s connections in Colombia and the United States — where most Bolivians had feared to go — were the best. [Bolivian Minister of the Interior Col. Luis] Arce Gomez quickly recognized her value to the government and put her in charge of selling the government’s cocaine, then piling up in bank vaults and beginning to rot,” Levine writes in his book the Big White Lie. “The Cocaine Coup had turned Sonia Atala into the chief international sales representative of the country [Bolivia], then producing [in the early 1980s] 80 percent of the world’s cocaine — beyond doubt the biggest drug dealer in the world.”

Levine explains that in 1979 and 1980, the center-left Bolivian government of Lidia Gueiler Tejada had agreed to work with DEA in targeting that nation’s major narco-barons, individuals such as Roberto Suarez, Jose Gasser and Alfredo Guitierrez. That led these narco-traffickers, cloaked in the garbs of legitimate businessman, along with elements of the Bolivian military, who were assisted by former Nazis, literally — chief among them, Klaus Barbie, dubbed the Butcher of Lyon for the brutal torture tactics he employed in Nazi Occupied France during World War II — to organize a successful coup d'etat against Gueiler’s government. Levine adds that the CIA backed this “Cocaine Coup” and that many of its chief architects and key players, the top narco-traffickers in Bolivia, were, in fact, CIA assets.

But Levine is not alone in his assessment of the forces behind the Cocaine Coup, which resulted in making Bolivia a South American narco-state in the early 1980s and a major supplier of cocaine to the US during the period in which Griselda Blanco and Papo Mejia were fighting over the streets of Miami.

Robert Parry, a former Associated Press reporter who played a key role in exposing the Iran/Contra scandal in the mid-1980s, in a story written in 1998, describes Bolivia’s Cocaine Coup (which, Parry claims, also was aided by the neo-fascist/US-supported Argentine government of that era, a government that launched a “Dirty War” against so-called “leftists,” which resulted in the “disappearing” and torture/murders of the thousands of Argentines in the late 1970s).

From Parry’s story, co-written with Marta Gurvich:

In testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, another Argentine intelligence officer, named Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse, described that operation.  A financial expert, Sanchez-Reisse said he had been recruited by Argentine intelligence in 1976 and specialized in the service's international operations. …

Sanchez-Reisse testified that the Miami [money laundering] operation was based in two front companies: Argenshow, a promoter of U.S. entertainment acts in Argentina, and the Silver Dollar, a pawn shop that was licensed to sell guns.

He asserted the real activity of the companies was to transfer more than $30 million — much of it from drug lords — into various political and paramilitary operations in South and Central America. He claimed the operation was approved by the CIA, which maintained close ties to the Argentine generals.

According to Sanchez-Reisse, the money operation's first major activity was funneling drug proceeds into a 1980 coup to overthrow an elected center-left government in Bolivia. That new government had offended Bolivia's powerful cocaine barons, including Roberto Suarez, then one of the biggest traffickers in the world.

Besides the weapons from Argentina, the Bolivian putschists got help from an international band of ex-Nazis and neo-nazis led by Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon for his work in Hitler's Gestapo.

In July 1980, the coup overthrew the Bolivian government and slaughtered many of its supporters. Some victims were tortured by Argentinean experts flown in to demonstrate their expertise.

The putsch, which became known as the Cocaine Coup, installed Luis Garcia Meza [as president of Bolivia] and other drug-connected military officers [such as Arce Gomez] who promptly turned Bolivia into South America's first modern narco-state. The secure supply of Bolivian cocaine was important to the development of the Medellin cartel in the early 1980s.

Parry's story continues:

… Many of the Argentine intelligence officers who assisted in the Cocaine Coup followed up their victory in Bolivia by moving northward into Central America to train a ragtag force of Nicaraguan contras.

Over 18 months, Sanchez-Reisse testified, more than $30 million went through [the CIA-sanctioned money laundering] operation. The money supported the Bolivian coup, the contras and other right-wing paramilitary activities in Central America….

It is important to note that this history still resonates today, in the current US presidential election. Candidate Mitt Romney’s signature company, Bain Capital, was launched in the early 1980s with the help of seed capital from Central American oligarchs, who, according to some press reports, helped to finance right-wing death squads operating in Central America at the time.

Prime Suspect

But in the drug business, treachery is right up there with greed and power as the guiding forces of the trade, and Bolivia’s Queen of Cocaine, Atala, fell victim to those rules. She had grown too powerful in the eyes of some of the Bolivian narcos running the country in 1980 and 1981, and so they double-crossed her on a coke deal she had made with the Colombian Mejia — then in his mid-20s. She had no place to run.

Mejia was out to kill her and Atala’s Bolivian allies had turned against her, according to Levine, so she ran to her only other “friends,” the DEA — with the CIA still, always, in the background. That resulted in Operation Hun, with Levine going undercover in an extremely dangerous assignment working to make cases, with Atala’s assistance as an informant, targeting her Bolivian and Colombian associates.

But there was a big problem with the plan, Levine says. The CIA had no intention of turning over their still-useful narco-trafficker assets in Latin America at a time when they were helping to sponsor dirty wars across that region that were deemed to be in the US interest in its battle against Communism — the War on Terror of its day.

As a result, the cases Levine and others helped to build in the early 1980s against the major Bolivian narcos behind the Cocaine Coup, including Suarez, Gasser and Guitierrez, all fell apart due to the inherent conflict between the objectives of US intelligence agencies and US law enforcement — in which the former holds most of the cards. Even Atala, in the end — a woman who, as Levine writes in the Big White Lie, had a “detachment of Klaus Barbie’s Nazi mercenaries … placed at her disposal” — proved to be beyond the reach of the law.

From Levine’s book:

Under cross-examination by defense counsel Stephen Finta, Sonia [Atala] admitted that, with the full knowledge, cooperation, and aid of the US government, all her vast wealth and properties in Bolivia had been returned to her…. It was also revealed that Sonia was soon to return to Bolivia [in the early 1980s], still the number one source country in the world for cocaine, once again free to reign supreme as the Queen with the Crown of Snow.

But for Levine, the story does not have a fairy tale ending. After Mejia was nearly stabbed to death in Miami by one of Blanco’s assassins, Mejia was arrested by DEA, due to the case built against him in Operation Hun, and ultimately sent to jail, because of Levine’s case work and testimony.

Levine told Narco News that Mejia is a very vengeful and skilled killer, who, at one time, “had an army of hit men” under his command, and has to be considered among the prime suspects in the September assassination of Blanco in Medellin.

Levine described the scenario as follows in a recent email:

1.  The Cocaine Cowboy War [in Miami] was raging when we began Operation Hun that targeted Papo Mejia among others, using Sonia Atala as the bait. What we learned was that Griselda Blanco had already killed Papo's father in the infamous Miami Dade[land] Mall, broad daylight shooting.

2. We (DEA undercover team) are then successful in indicting Mejia via an elaborate undercover sting, but he is nowhere to be found.

3. Griselda has her own intelligence system and learns that Papo is landing at Miami International from Colombia in [on Sept. 15, 1982]. She pays Miguel Perez $250,000 to off him. Perez catches Mejia after he passes customs and in broad daylight stabs him ten times with a bayonet.

4. He survives … stands trial and is sentenced to 27 years.... I retire [from DEA] and become an expert [court] witness. 

5. Years go by and his [Mejia’s] lawyer, Steve Finta, in the mid-90s is trying to get Papo [Mejia] an early release [from prison]. We have a meeting. He wants to hire me as an expert to get Papo out…. This is the actual dialogue: 

Me: “You want me to help get him out, when I’m on his hit list?”

Steve [Finta]: “I talked to him. You're no longer on the top of the list….” (Real life is so much stranger than fiction.)

6.  Papo is eventually released from prison with no help from me. He is deported to Colombia.

7.  Griselda [Blanco] is released after Papo and deported to Colombia where she is (recently) murdered.

8.  Question: Is Papo Mejia now working his way down his long-held "bucket" hit list?

In short: I'd like to make this public, at least, as a measure of self-defense. At the very least, it should also alert the Colombian Police to their most likely subject.

Narco News attempted to contact Mejia’s former attorney, Finta, for comment. The number for his Miami-area law office is disconnected. He did not reply to an email query.

Stay tuned…..

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