Cocaine Cowboys

2006, Movie, R, 118 mins


Miami-based producer/director team Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben's cheeky documentary charts the decade-long blizzard of cocaine money that financed their hometown's transformation from a sleepy, slightly down-at-the-heels tourist town into a glamorous hotspot and fueled a competition between drug dealers that left the streets littered with bloody bodies. It opens on July 11, 1979, when two men armed with submachine guns opened fire inside a Dadeland Mall liquor store. They left behind two bullet-riddled corpses, a van packed with heavy artillery and a nickname — "cocaine cowboys." The story of the Miami drug wars has been told before, in movies like SCARFACE (1983) and the television series Miami Vice (1984-1989). But Corben and Spellman have the hometown perspective and a great hook in Jon Pernell Roberts, a personable transplanted New Yorker who moved some two billion dollars worth of cocaine in the early boom years. Roberts moved to Miami after a short stint running Mafia-connected nightclubs; he had a few hundred dollars and lived with his grandfather while scouting opportunities. When he started dealing, cocaine was hugely expensive and in short supply; as demand rose he went looking for a steady source. He found a connection to the Medellin Cartel, run by the Colombia-based Ochoa family, and pilot Mickey Munday, a native Floridian who smuggled marijuana until market saturation ruined the risk-to-benefit ratio. Though Roberts dubs Munday a real-life MacGyver, he's not a particularly compelling interview; fortunately, the filmmakers also have Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, a hit man for the notorious Griselda Blanco. Ambitious, paranoid and thin-skinned, Blanco ordered the Dadeland Mall massacre and almost single-handedly ratcheted up the bloodshed. Ayala is a vivid reminder of the sheer volatility of life in the drug trade — one day it's champagne and caviar, the next someone like Ayala riddles your car with bullets and kills your 3-year-old, who happened to be sleeping on the backseat. Spellman and Corben deftly put the cocaine business into a larger cultural context, including the aftereffects of the '70s recession, the Mariel Boatlift and the inadequacy of Miami's police force. After Blanco moved her operation to California, the bloodletting abated; law enforcement began catching up, Roberts and Munday were arrested and the go-go '80s went. Cocaine cash financed Miami's renaissance, but the film never downplays the human cost at which that urban renewal was purchased. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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