A Profusion of Corpses

Former Miami homicide detective Nelson Andreu's memories are etched in blood

It was four guys -- bound, gagged, and shot to death. It was drugs. There were empty grocery bags with coke residue in them, and somebody got sloppy and accidentally left a kilo under the bed. They were all Colombians."

A few heads turn when the man with the neatly trimmed mustache and salt-and-pepper hair begins telling his story in a crowded restaurant. The narrative sounds like a voiceover from a tough-guy movie, except for his measured tone and friendly demeanor. Were it not for the starched blue uniform and golden captain's bars on his collar, Nelson Andreu could pass for a typical middle-age man.

Of course, the other thing that differentiates him from your average 50-year-old is his mental warehouse of terrifying tales. Though he's now a captain with the West Miami Police Department, Andreu spent twenty years with the Miami Police Department, mostly investigating homicides. From serial killers to ruthless drug dealers to horrific sexual predators, Andreu has stockpiled bedtime stories grisly enough to make his grandkids mess their Pampers.

He started with MPD in 1980, when Miami was newly awash in cocaine, cash, and corpses. After only ten months as a patrolman, he became a homicide detective. "I guess you could say I applied at the right time," he deadpans. "They really needed Spanish-speaking officers. They only had a couple. And the homicide rate was really getting bad."

Andreu entered a department overloaded with cases. And the body count kept getting higher as the Colombian cartels and local Cuban traffickers fought over money and drugs. "The sheer volume of the killings had a bad effect on the police department," Andreu remembers. "Number one, it put a strain on uniformed officers, who knew there were a lot of bad guys out there with guns, and they were using them. A simple traffic stop -- be it an old junker or a new BMW -- could turn bloody if the wrong guy was in the car. And for the homicide detectives, it was three or four straight days on the job without going home. We had a lounge where we'd sleep, and everybody had an extra change of clothes in their desk or their car."

There was plenty of money to be made working overtime hours, but the work took a toll. "It was very trying for our families," Andreu says. "My son is a detective for Miami-Dade, and he'd always said he wanted to become a homicide detective. Then they offered him a position with homicide right after he had a baby, and he turned it down. I've never talked to him about it, but I believe he remembers that I was never there. I mean, all the money you made working overtime was spent on antacid, doctor bills, and divorce lawyers for some guys."

The cocaine boom and the attendant murders roughly coincided with the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Because of this, the popularly held notion was that Cuban criminals were responsible for much of the drug trade. Andreu, who came to Miami from Cuba at the age of two, says that wasn't the case: "Everyone got a piece of the cocaine trade, but the people behind it at that time were mainly Colombian."

The tactics employed by the cartels' soldiers were new to Miami police, according to Andreu. "The Colombians were a different kind of criminal for us to deal with," he recounts. "They were ruthless, but they were also foolhardy. Take the Italian Mafia: If they kill a guy, they cut him up and throw him in the ocean. The Colombians left the bodies where they lay. They'd shoot up a bar and not care about innocent victims."

Which brings him to the aforementioned quadruple murder, which Andreu, who has an encyclopedic mind for Miami's criminal past, recalls as one of only two or three quadruple homicides in Miami's history. "We arrested the Colombian guy who owned the apartment complex," he remembers. "He had $30,000 or $40,000 in his trunk, and we speculated that he rented the place to the four guys, then sold them out to someone else, but we never figured out exactly what happened."

The murders, which occurred in August 1982, were never solved. Worse, Andreu never learned anything more about them. "In this job, over the years you always pick up little tidbits of information from prison snitches or people on the street or other officers," he says. "I never heard a word about that quadruple murder. We never got a tip or a fingerprint hit, and I believe we got good fingerprints from the scene. It hasn't bothered me...." Here Andreu pauses, recounting the details in his mind. When he resumes, he sounds like a man trying to convince himself of something: "Not that it's bothered me, but I've always wondered why we never, ever got anything on that one."

Cocaine trafficking, once the province of small-time smugglers handling maybe a kilo or two at a time, erupted into many different million-dollar operations moving tons of powder from South America through the Caribbean and into Miami and New York in the late Seventies. "It wasn't something many people could afford before that, and it certainly wasn't something that hundreds of people were getting killed for," Andreu says. "By the time the police realized it had become this monster, it had already happened. This drug was coming into Miami in every way imaginable, and the bodies were turning up everywhere."

By the mid-Eighties, internecine battles among Miami's dopers were raging, and Andreu investigated a number of killings tied to Griselda "La Madrina" Blanco, a murderous Colombian who relished cultivating a terrifying reputation. (See "Big Story, Big Screen.") She moved to Queens, New York, in the Sixties after a grim childhood spent picking pockets and whoring in the Medellín slums. Blanco moved to Miami in the Seventies after a boyfriend introduced her to cocaine smuggling, already an increasingly lucrative trade. She quickly established underworld notoriety for her eagerness to pull the trigger, and is credited with inventing lingerie that contained compartments for smuggling drugs and for perfecting the motorcycle drive-by assassination.

Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of her own product, and spent lavishly. Her favorite possessions included an emerald-and-gold MAC-10 machine pistol, Eva Peron's pearls, and a tea set once used by the Queen of England. A fan of the Godfather movies, Blanco named her youngest son Michael Corleone Sepulveda.

Among many other killings, Blanco's drug gang was responsible for the 1979 machine-gun shootings at Dadeland Mall that left two dead and two wounded. Her crew of killers pulled up to the mall in an armored van with the words "Happy Time Complete Party Supply" stenciled on the side (an arsenal of weapons was inside), got out, and sprayed machine-gun fire into a group of people at the mall's Crown Liquor store.

Andreu remembers that while investigating Blanco, the same name kept coming up. "We were looking for a hit man named Riverita," he remembers. "We'd been looking for this guy we only knew as Riverita for a while. We assumed he probably was named Rivera or Rivero and the nickname was based on that."

The search was fruitless until a man with a strange voice was arrested in connection with a Chicago bank robbery. "He had kind of a high-pitched voice," Andreu says. "His nickname was from some Colombian cartoon character with a high-pitched voice. His name was Jorge Ayala." Prosecutors knew they had Blanco's highest-ranking pistolero on their hands, in part because of his unique voice (he has since had surgery to normalize his vocal tone).

Ayala was an effective hit man precisely because he didn't fit the stereotype, according to Andreu: "Ayala spoke perfect English, he grew up in Chicago, and he didn't look Colombian. He fit in everywhere without drawing attention."

In fact Ayala was so charming that his telephone liaisons with secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office eventually resulted in a scandal that led to the firing of three secretaries and the resignation of a veteran prosecutor. (See Tristram Korten's "Prosecution Complex," November 26, 1998.)

Ayala was eventually tied to a number of cocaine-related murders. In 1993 he agreed to talk about Blanco's business if prosecutors spared him the death penalty. The State Attorney's Office agreed. As it turns out, he was an unhappy employee. Andreu chuckles while recollecting the murderous sociopath Ayala's dissatisfaction with a boss even more bloodthirsty than he. "He probably killed, or saw killed, at least 30 people," says Andreu. "And this guy was reasonable compared to Blanco. I remember talking with him after we caught him, and here's this hit man describing his attempts to convince Blanco to be more careful because she was drawing too much attention."

Andreu says Ayala described one hit that was supposed to take place at the Omni Mall on Biscayne Boulevard and NE Sixteenth Street: "When the Omni was the Omni, there was a club in there. Blanco wanted Ayala to kill a guy who was known to hang out at the club. Blanco and Ayala waited in the parking lot for the guy, and Ayala followed him on the elevator to go up to the club. He was about to ice-pick the guy when the elevator doors opened and a cop walked in. Ayala went back down to the parking lot and told Blanco what happened, and she was pissed that he didn't kill the guy. She told him to get his machine gun out of the trunk and go up there and spray the club. He persuaded her to wait and wound up following the guy and spraying his car on South Dixie Highway. One innocent bystander was killed."

Cocaine has never stopped flowing into Miami, although the massive and overt smuggling began to diminish, along with much of the ostentatious, coke-fueled lifestyle, when rumors of mass murder and Third World lawlessness finally penetrated President Ronald Reagan's hearing aid. Federal, state, county, and city task forces were formed, and a near-paramilitary effort was mounted under the leadership of Vice President George H.W. Bush to curtail the flow of coke into South Florida.

It took years, but eventually the murder rate in Miami receded as police successfully forced smugglers to take advantage of America's porous border with Mexico.

Andreu was part of one of the DEA/MPD task forces and says that the virtually unlimited resources, although tardy, were useful. "Well, we had a shot at least," he says. "We were able to do more than play catchup."

Ayala remains in prison. Blanco, arrested in 1985, was deported to Colombia last year. Three of her four sons have been sent back to Colombia, and those three have been killed. Andreu doesn't think she'll make it very long. "Too many enemies," he says with a chuckle. "Too many bodies. I'm surprised she's made it this long."


From There to Here: Cocaine transport techniques

Cops, Coke, Cash, Corruption: Law enforcement officers who joined the criminals

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