During the heyday of the cocaine trade in Miami during the 1970s and early '80s, drug smugglers and dealers fueled by Colombia's Medellin cartel transformed the city from a sleepy retirement community into one of the country's hot spots. The cocaine industry was a $20-billion annual business in the Florida metropolis.
But then the bubble burst. Drug-related crime was rampant, and Miami's homicide rate tripled, prompting Time magazine to label the city "Paradise Lost" in a cover article. Authorities cracked down.
The documentary "Cocaine Cowboys," by Miami-based filmmaker Billy Corben, which opens Friday, looks at the kingpins of the cocaine world, including dealer Jon Roberts, transporter Mickey Munday, cartel power Griselda Blanco and her henchman Jorge "Rivi" Ayala.
Initially, Corben and his producing partner, Alfred Spellman, considered a dramatic film about the cocaine trade but found Hollywood executives closed-minded.
"They all have that 'been-there, done-that' pretension about them," Corben said. "They said, 'Isn't that "Miami Vice"? Isn't that "Scarface"? Isn't that "Blow"?' " I have a question: How many movies about the Italian mafia can they make? Meanwhile, this era is so rich with characters and stories that are completely untapped. For us down here, it boggles the mind."
After the 2001 release of their documentary "Raw Deal," about an alleged rape case in Florida, Corben and Spellman began fielding calls from people pitching ideas for other nonfiction films. One was from a friend of Corben who told him he had met the legendary cocaine dealer Jon Roberts poolside at his condo. "I knew from the first phone call that this was the door opening up onto this world we had waited 12 years for," Corben said.
After meeting Roberts, they gained access to Munday. "We knew [the film] was going to have a three-act structure -- the drugs, the money and the murder," Corben said. "We had the drugs and the money."
Spellman then struck up a pen-pal relationship with three of Blanco's imprisoned hit men. Only Ayala would talk extensively about the drug-war killings.
Corben says the Miami drug trade has become far more conservative in the past two decades. "You can't be out in the open anymore," he said. "You don't have mirrored tabletops at nightclubs with cocktail waitresses cutting up blow for you."
-- Susan King