When the drug business was really rolling in Miami in the late '70s and early '80s, dealers were making so much money that they set up their own mini-economy, with private airstrips and gas stations, paid accomplices citywide, and banks staked almost entirely with drug money. The rest of Miami's economy followed suit, and during a crushing national recession, south Florida car salesmen, real-estate brokers, and jewelry stores remained flush with cash. In Billy Corben's documentary Cocaine Cowboys, Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan claims that at one point in the '80s, an entire Miami police academy graduating class ended up dead or in jail. And a local police scientist estimates that any random $20 bill, plucked from a wallet in 1981 and examined under a microscope, would've revealed traces of cocaine.
Those are the kind of put-it-in-perspective tidbits that make Cocaine Cowboys such a buzz to watch—along with the details about how the drugs got into the country in the first place, and how the network of suppliers and distributors communicated with each other away from the ears of the DEA. Corben and producer Alfred Spellman have this story cold, thanks to the participation of some of the top crooks, as well as the cops who chased them and the reporters who covered the vice beat. And Corben tells the story with style, scoring images of excess and violence with the voices of those who lived it, plus a musical assist from Miami Vice's own Jan Hammer. Cocaine Cowboys is kinetic and absorbing, the documentary equivalent of GoodFellas.
Does it have a point, beyond true-crime titillation? Maybe just a little. Corben and Spellman spend the first half of Cocaine Cowboys focusing on a pair of high-living middlemen, Jon Pernell Roberts and Mickey Munday, who made so much money that Roberts was asked to join the Republican inner circle at the height of the Reagan years. The second half of the movie—the bummer half—comes from the perspective of hired killer Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, whose vindictive, sociopathic boss Griselda Blanco was largely responsible for turning Miami into a murder capital. Ultimately, Cocaine Cowboys' lesson isn't that crime doesn't pay, but that it maybe pays too well. Since no one knows what to do with all the money, dealers spend it on the little luxuries, like condominiums, cigarette boats, power brokering, and assassination.