America, for all of its grandeur and pretense of respectability, is essentially a vast criminal enterprise. Since its inception, it has been built not with the grit and spit of humble, wide-eyed patriots, but the cash and cunning of robber barons, slaveholders, corporate titans, and yes, drug kingpins. Only the Pollyanna types among us continue to cling to the illusion of our birth, while the more enlightened recognize and embrace the darkness at the heart of our corrupt soul. This is not to engage in predictable America bashing — though that is usually warranted — but instead, admit that a close, honest reading of our history reveals an essential truth: if we are to celebrate our nation, and its big, bloated, loveable narcissism, then we must tip our caps to the blood letters, brutes, madmen, and scoundrels, as well as the rough and tumble boot-strappers, who have helped define our collective experience. Billy Corben’s documentary Cocaine Cowboys — hands down the best film I’ve seen all year — is the flip side of the usually cheerful, uplifting immigrant’s tale; not an endorsement, per se, but a giddy, rock n’ roll examination of a period in our nation’s history when the streets of Miami, Florida — paved with cocaine and the bullet-ridden corpses of its pushers — stood for an entire culture. Rightfully so.
Corben’s film is so damned exhilarating because of its self-conscious, hip style, but the facts of the matter are what sell this glitzy package. There is no shortage of interviews, news accounts, archival footage, and anecdotes to punch it all home, but its guiding theme — much like the nostalgia we feel for the older, better, mob-driven Vegas — transforms mere journalism into a grand sociological statement, irrefutable in its logic. Is the American dream — our dream — on par with the brutality and greed of barely literate, amoral gangsters? Not line for line, of course, but there stands that brilliant, glass-filled Miami skyline — a testament to economic power and success — and what else brought it from dirt and dust but the billions of dollars generated by drug sales? No one’s denying that cocaine country was a brutal, rigged game that enriched but a chosen few (no parallels to the “legitimate” economy, eh?), but their money (and theirs alone) bought the houses, drove the cars, paid the bills, raised the clubs, the restaurants, and the bars, and, most of all, was laundered through dozens of wildcat banks, which in turn promoted a construction boom unlike anything the area had ever seen. Throughout, cops, politicians, and all those deemed “respectable”, knowingly turned away. It’s worth noting that while the rest of the country suffered through a recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Miami maintained its time in the sun, as if walled off from reality by a haze of addiction. Snowblind, indeed.
But while the film pulls back for a much-needed macro-level view, it is the cast of characters — those on the ground, in the streets, and literally immersed in the daily muck — who make this an utter delight. Consider “Cocaine Queen” Griselda Blanco of the Medellin cartel, Columbia’s nastiest export; a woman so vicious and vile that she sent shockwaves throughout a subculture teeming with macho posturing. While we are denied her own personal accounts (an interview would have been the capper), we hear enough from the likes of assassin Jorge “Rivi” Ayala — himself responsible for hundreds of killings — to experience Blanco’s world. Running her empire with all the ruthlessness we’ve come to expect from fiction, she ordered mass hits (women and children included), had enemies cut into pieces, packaged, and set by the side of the road, and became so unforgiving that it was no longer about recovering old debts, but the infliction of maximum pain. Glamorous, vain, and full of vigor, Blanco brought her ovaries to a gunfight and left her rivals quivering in the sand. She even orchestrated the infamous liquor store hit at the Dade County Shopping Mall in 1979, the key event in the brutal war to follow, in which Miami’s murder rate literally skyrocketed to almost two a day.
Around this time, Time magazine reported on the “fear factor” associated with Miami, and tourists stayed away in droves, assuming that their vacations and poolside reading would be interrupted by gunfire and brain matter. As violent as Miami had become, it was still largely an internal matter, as if a family had to be left to sort out its own problems. Death reigned, but Miami was a player on the world scene at last. And why not? As we learn from the pilots, distributors, and enforcers, drug dealing on this scale took brains as well as brawn, and if anything can be said about Miami at this time, it’s that our best and brightest were indeed on the scene. If cops get in the way, buy them off. If laws are passed and the DEA blankets Florida’s east coast, move to the west. Boat deliveries giving you trouble? Air drops are a wonderful substitute (that is, if the Colombians pack the shit properly). But for most of these salad days, cocaine was hip to the point of cliché. Do it in the open, discuss it in the bars, and pack the bathrooms with parties. Money exchanged hands to such a degree that it almost became a burden. As high-roller Jon Roberts tells it, he pulled in so much cash that he had to bury most of it in the yard. He even stored bills in feed bags. That such a thing could come crashing down never seemed possible. This was America, and snorting coke was as part of our days as reading the morning paper.
But of course, the party did in fact end, though it continues in a much less glamorous fashion. Drug dealers and users persist (as they always will), but the hip factor is gone, and certainly cocaine no longer holds the starry-eyed appeal it once did. Once the Reagan administration got tough, arrests piled up, witnesses turned, and though the drug remained in circulation, Miami’s status quickly caught up with reality. Nightclubs closed their doors, car lots couldn’t give their product away, and the city looked to a future — as with its romanticized past — of geriatrics, sun-worshippers, and silly families on their last legs of vacationing. Instead of hired guns, murderous mamas, and endless drive-bys, Miami coveted sports franchises, legitimate operations, and dull, non-violent fun. But the legacy remains, and none of it would have been possible without the thuggish pioneers who came before. The film doesn’t openly weep for a lost age, but through its voices (now mostly in prison or on parole), it refuses to apologize for what they hath wrought. A journalist seems to think it was a devil’s bargain, and that a thriving metropolis is never worth thousands of deaths, but let us pause only briefly before defiantly begging to differ. It’s not a matter of approving or disapproving; let’s leave that to the moralists. Instead, it’s merely an acknowledgement of how we’ve been since we crawled from the slime. Balzac said that behind every great fortune there is a crime, but he didn’t go far enough. The same could be said of every great nation.