The events that inspired movies like Scarface, television shows like Miami Vice and video games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City are a lot more violent, a lot smarter, and definitely wealthier. In the new documentary, Cocaine Cowboys, the cocaine drug trade in Miami during the 1970’s and 80’s is explored through stories of the people who smuggled the drugs, moved the coke on the streets, and protected their turf by taking out the competition – permanently.
The film gives you an inside look at the life of drug smuggler Mickey Munday as he imported tons of cocaine from Columbia to Florida, the smarts of John Roberts to took the blow from the plane and passed it onto the retailers who distributed the drugs into the streets. It tells the stories of Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, a hit man who worked for Griselda Blanco, a female drug kingpin who makes Don Corleone look like a street level thug. Told through the experiences of police officers, journalists, television reporters and coroners, Cocaine Cowboys reveals how the drug trade made Miami one of the best economies in the nation, but also the murder capital of the United States.
Opening in limited release this week, HipHopCrack.com caught up with Cocaine Cowboys’ director, Billy Corben, 28, to talk about the documentary, the research involved and the latest on what the former cowboys are doing and the current atmosphere in Miami.
Why did you want to make this documentary?
First and foremost we are Miami boys, born and bred and current residents. So this is a part of our history. It had been told pretty effectively in a dramatic context in Scarface and in Miami Vice. The funny thing about those projects, everybody thinks they were over the top; they were so outrageous and so violent and so flamboyant with all the money and the murder but when you watch Cocaine Cowboys, you see the reality and realize that they were actually toned down. The reality was so brutal and so absurd that I guess [Miami Vice and Scarface creators] said who’s going to believe that? But Scarface is 100 percent accurate and if anything, it’s toned down from what the reality Miami was. We wanted to get the true story out there. Growing up in this era, of course we were too young to cognizant of the fact that we were the murder capital of the country, but I remember the affluence and everybody doing really well. I grew up in a middle class community with modest houses but a neighbor would have a Porsche in the driveway or a Mercedes or something like that. And these weren’t people in the drug trade but they were certainly benefiting from it. We all did. If you were a car salesman, or worked on the retail level or if you owned a little restaurant or something, you had people coming in and handing you cash, lots of cash for lots of stuff. It’s all in the movie.
So at 28, you really didn’t experience that much of the drug trade, but just kind of watched at what happened around you?
I just remember being young and sitting in the mid-80’s and my mother cooking dinner and watching the local news and seeing that there was a substantial crime problem in the city. I remember sitting at home on nights watching Miami Vice on television. But this is really a question of where we came from, where our skyline came from and how the city was built. It’s obviously a national and international story as well because not only are people intrigued with Miami all over the world, particularly Miami Beach and South Beach, but the story about what the federal government had to do to curb the drug trade.
So what kind of research and process did you go through to make the film happen?
In someway or another we had been developing this project for 12 years. We started our company, Rakontur, when we were sophomores in high school, and this is something that we always wanted to do and always wanted to explore. Alfred Spellman, my producing partner, he read all the books on the era and Miami that had been written and this is something that we always wanted to do. We considered doing it as a dramatic feature based on the real stories but after Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, our first film made a splash at Sundance in 2001, we became like the Miami documentary boys, so we said we’d do it as a non-fiction. At that point that’s when we decided to research hardcore and that was in 2002 and 2003. Then it all comes down to the access; like who you’re going to get, who are you going to talk to face to face. You can always find a lawyer or a reporter or a cop to talk to, we wanted to talk to those people too because there is a lot of interesting characters in that aspect but most importantly we wanted to talk to the cocaine cowboys.
That’s where it began; John Roberts is the first guy we got in touch with. One of the first books we read was The Man Who Made It Snow by Max Mermelstein, who ratted everybody out and has been testifying against the Medellin Cartel for 20 years, and that’s where we learned about John Roberts. From John we got Mickey Munday and we had the business covered. There are three facets to this story of the cocaine trade, there’s the cocaine business, there’s the money and then there’s the murder. So we wanted to get all three represented. We also wanted to talk to the guy who was behind the trigger of a Mac-11 spraying the streets of Miami so we got Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala. We got Rivi because he was in a very unique position to talk about all of his murders because of the deal that he cut with the state attorney. He has an encyclopedic memory of all these murders. He knows names, he knows dates, he knows wardrobe what everybody was wearing, he remembers what was said, and he remembers what songs were on the radio when he was on his way to a hit and he gave it all to us. We shot 160 hours of footage with just the three cocaine cowboys so it’s going to be a hell of a DVD.
Griselda Blanco was released from prison and deported back to Columbia a couple of years ago, what have you heard about her lately?
We know she’s seen the movie, we don’t know how or where. We know she was down in Columbia and was interested in going to Europe but I don’t know what country would take her. The woman is a multi-millionaire; she doesn’t have to work another day in her life. But she clearly has a lot of enemies out there and is trying to lie low. Some of our law enforcement connections have said that they would not be surprised if she was back in the United States. This is a woman who started her career not only as a prostitute but a document forger, doing passports and visas, that was her early career. Back in the day she would just walk back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico. This woman is credited by all law enforcement with not only starting the Miami cocaine wars but also being responsible for the homicide rate that made Miami the murder capital of the country. You can literally track the homicide increase in Miami with the arrival and the departure of Griselda Blanco. The success of her business down here, at its peak, she was killing left and right on the street.
Do Roberts and Munday still have cash from their days as drug runners?
I don’t know, but I’ll tell you they’re not living large right now. They live very modestly, they live very quietly. Even if I had some of that money, I’d live quietly anyway, so I don’t know. I know Mickey’s got a job; he has a regular day job in the boat business. And I don’t know what John is doing these days.
What are your thoughts on how this era of Miami has inspired movies, videos games and hip-hop?
When we finally got access and decided to greenlight this project, this was right in the middle of the Scarface re-release and after the massive success of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The Miami Vice movie had just been announced, we expected the Scarface and Miami Vice video game to come out. Now in 2006, you have The Godfather video game, we got the Miami Vice movie and video game, we got the Scarface movie super platinum re-release and video game and you got the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (on PSP). And now you have Cocaine Cowboys. We were very aware of that angle. The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and sometime after it started arriving on the streets of Miami. Then a couple of months ago its at the flea market, my friend walks into an inner city barber shop and it’s playing on two screens on both sides of the barber shop. Then we start hearing from the hip-hop guys. Trick Daddy wants to do something for the soundtrack and we hear from Pitbull who’s seen it over 10 times, we heard from Noreaga, Cool & Dre, Smitty, DJ Khaled, Prince Markie Dee who’s down at 103.5 in Miami. So everybody was talking about it and giving it to each other. So we realized that this community has embraced our movie so we should embrace the audience.
What do you make of the recent killing of that family in Florida? Source
What’s the climate in Miami now?
Yeah that family of four on the turnpike and right off the bat it was a drug angle, amazing. That was such an insanely public display, nowadays everything is low key. You can’t flaunt anymore. Drugs are cyclical man. Cocaine was a disco drug, a 70’s and 80’s thing. Then in the 90’s it was the club drug, ecstasy and stuff like that, but now I’m seeing blow around again. I’m seeing it in Miami, I’m seeing it in New York and I think it’s in the midst of a resurgence. And when you have a drug that expensive and making that kind of money, you get competition and you get violence. That’s the bottom line, you see ugliness.