The following article contains spoilers for Netflix’s “Griselda.”
In 1998, convicted hit man Jorge “Rivi” Ayala cut a deal with the state attorney’s office in Miami-Dade County to testify against his former boss, Griselda Blanco, the notorious Colombian drug lord who built a vast empire as a cocaine trafficker during the 1970s and ’80s.
But in a twist of fate, Ayala weaponized his charm by having sexually explicit telephone conversations with secretaries who worked at the prosecutor’s office, resulting in a political scandal that rendered his testimony inadmissible and helped knock Blanco’s murder charges down to the second degree.
That real-life event serves as the final, stranger-than-fiction plot twist in Netflix’s “Griselda,” a six-part drama series that chronicles the meteoric rise and epic downfall of Griselda Blanco (played by Sofía Vergara), a drug queen who was believed to be responsible for countless homicides during that violent period in Miami’s history.
While many of the individuals in Blanco’s inner circle either turned on her or were killed over the years, Ayala — who is played by Argentine actor Martín Rodríguez in “Griselda” — remained one of her closest confidants. In 1993, Ayala pleaded guilty to three contract killings — including the shooting of Johnny Castro, the toddler son of one of Blanco’s former enforcers — but he is believed to be responsible for some three dozen murders. Ayala is currently serving a life sentence in U.S. prison and would be deported back to his native Colombia if released.
“We like to think that Rivi did this on purpose as a gift to her, as a sacrifice, as a final act of loyalty. Did that happen? We don’t know. But it feels right,” says Eric Newman, a co-creator and executive producer of “Griselda.” “Here’s this guy who had sort of a pure love for her and let her get off. And by the way, Griselda does not get off. She loses her children, loses 20 years of her life, and then is shot and killed a few years later, so it’s certainly a tragedy. But that gesture had, for us, almost a kindness to it.”
Having grown up in Latin America, where Blanco is often compared to the likes of Pablo Escobar, Rodríguez says he approached “Griselda” with some preconceptions about Blanco, but he recognized that the producers wanted to offer a fresh take on the typically male-centered narco story. Rodríguez says he auditioned for a handful of parts in the series before being offered the role of Ayala, whom the actor describes as a bit of a mystic with a feminist side and an unconditional love for Blanco.
“I thought that this character came from living a life that is very difficult, and he’s tired of a world where men exercise violence to become powerful, so this feeling of resentment leaves him ready to contribute to Griselda’s work,” Rodríguez, 45, says in a Zoom interview. “He has, as we say in Spanish, sangre en el ojo, like a feeling of revenge.”
“I think Rivi’s story — and I’ve given a fair amount of thought to this — is a guy who briefly thinks he has a heart,” says Newman . He’s “a guy who starts to feel something he’s never felt before, which is this asexual connection to Griselda. I think it’s a little bit confusing. I don’t think it’s as simple as, ‘Oh, I want to attach myself to this person because I think she’s going places.’ … There was almost a sort of obsession there, and we liked that.”
Early in the research process, Newman says he and his longtime collaborator Doug Miro heard a story from a former Miami Police Department detective about how Ayala came to be involved with Blanco’s cartel, which differs from how he is introduced in “Griselda.” As Newman recalls from the conversation with the detective, Ayala had been caught stealing the car of Blanco’s third husband, Dario Sepúlveda (played by Alberto Guerra in the series). In order to avoid being killed himself, Ayala agreed to carry out a hit job on one of Blanco’s enemies at a nightclub, only to run into and reveal his plan to a friend. Given one last shot, Ayala ended up killing not only the intended target but also the friend who blew his cover.
“Clearly, the things that he does [are] almost without conscience, but we also love the idea of this character without conscience on Griselda’s shoulder,” Newman says. “You have a finite amount of sympathy for someone who’s going to do these horrible things, and you just have to maximize it,” he adds.
Using transcripts of depositions, news articles and Ayala’s interviews in the 2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys,” Newman and his creative team were able to cobble together other details about Ayala’s life. For instance, he was born with a distinctive, high-pitched voice, and his nickname, Rivi, was based on a Colombian cartoon character named Rivera, who was a roadrunner with a high voice, Newman says.
Rather than attempting to resemble Ayala, Rodríguez says he worked closely with executive producer and director Andrés Baiz “to create a character with a complex personality and a specific humanity that showed how he became her right-hand man” amid the turmoil of the ’80s. The character demanded a certain eccentricity, which Rodríguez says is signaled through his image, wardrobe, and behavior. The actor says he drew particular inspiration from the music and poetry of Jim Morrison.
Although “Griselda” is grounded in true events, Newman is quick to emphasize that his team exercised creative license to tell this iteration of Blanco’s — and Ayala’s — story. The real-life Ayala “was pretty much raised in Chicago” and “speaks accentless English,” while his on-screen counterpart speaks with a thicker accent. The writers created Ayala’s association with Amilcar (José Zúñiga), a Venezuelan drug dealer who partners with Blanco but is eventually apprehended by authorities in a shootout.
Ayala “was sort of this charming sociopath who helped us with a fundamental component to Griselda’s character that seemed to have been neglected in every telling we had ever heard, which was [that] she inspired tremendous loyalty,” says Newman, who also co-created the “Narcos” series.
Past retellings of Blanco’s life story have painted her as nothing more than an “ugly, murderous, treacherous beast,” Newman continues. “What I found in my research, in all my years of chronicling drug traffickers — and certainly the big ones — is that is generally a small part of their persona that usually manifests later in their career and then leads to their downfall. But there is always a moment where they’re almost beloved.”
Throughout the six-month shoot, Rodríguez says he constantly found himself wondering, “If Rivi doesn’t want power or money, why is he helping Griselda for nothing?” The actor likens the relationship between Griselda and Rivi to Bonnie and Clyde. “They are two people who are consciously living [through] dangerous situations,” he says. “There’s an escalation of adrenaline that bonds them, and they feed off of each other and can’t stop because it’s their way of life. And even though they are criminals, they protect each other until the end.”
That kind of fierce devotion can also be a reason why a lot of people felt compelled to do things they wouldn’t normally do around Blanco, Newman says.
“There has to be a reason, in such a male-dominated world, why she was able to do this, and it’s the same thing that she kind of applied to the Marielitos, the Cubans,” he says. “I never met her, but for us, it was something sort of maternal. It was sort of an, ‘Unlike men who want to subjugate you, I actually want to take care of you,’ until of course, that gets lost in the story, and I think that Rivi gets caught up in that.”
When they learned about Ayala’s phone sex scandal, the writers knew they wanted to build to his and Blanco’s arrests in the series finale of “Griselda.” Similar to the real-life event, in the series, Ayala robs a bank after the employees refuse to give him change to make a phone call, which leads to his apprehension by authorities.
“The cops who were pursuing Griselda knew that if they found this guy who had disappeared, it would be a huge win,” Newman says, “so when they got that picture and knew that they had this guy in custody, it was a great moment for them.”
While Ayala’s motivations for his actions are not known, the writers wanted to give him a little bit of authorship in the phone sex scandal, choosing to believe that he did it to save Blanco from serving a longer sentence, Newman says. (Blanco was released from prison in 2004 and deported to Colombia, where she was fatally shot in 2012.)
“Given that we do give him credit for getting her off all these murder charges that he ends up going down for, I think he actually does feel [something about what he has done], and I think he does find his humanity, barely,” he adds.
Vergara is the star of “Griselda,” but the series features a large cast with actors like Vanessa Ferlito (“CSI: NY,” “24”), Guerra and Christian Tappán — who each have a long list of credits in Spanish-language soap operas — and even the reggaeton artist Karol G in her acting debut. Newman estimates that at least 80% of the cast and crew were made up of Latin Americans — and there are a number of Colombians in particular, including Vergara and Baiz. Rodríguez is among the breakouts in the cast of relative newcomers — for American audiences anyway.
“I think you couldn’t do it any other way because authenticity is too important to me,” Newman says. “All of these millions of people are going to watch ‘Griselda,’ and they’re going to discover Alberto Guerra, Christian Tappán, Martín, and of course some of the Americans like Juliana [Aidén Martinez]. I’m thrilled that they’re going to reach such a wide audience that may actually encourage people to seek out other films and shows that they’re in.”