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Wednesday April 25, 2007

Cocaine Cowboys the movie

cocaine cowboys screenshot

Cocaine Cowboys is a documentary about the drug trade in Miami in the late 1970s and early 80s. Built around absorbing interviews with Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, and Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, it’s intercut with occasionally cheesy reenactments and some fascinating stock footage.

In the first part, Roberts and Munday tell their stories. Small-time crooks who happened to be in the right place at the right time, they become two of the biggest importers of cocaine from Colombia to Miami. They share lots and lots of interesting stories about the technicalities of how they did it (many more are on the DVD’s great deleted scenes section), how much money they made, and all the cool shit they got to buy. There’s stories of destroying the private room at the Forge and just paying to have it restored, smashing cars as a form of tension-relief, and transporting coke in the trunk of a car on a flatbed truck. There are great stories about dropping loads with homing signals in the ocean, evading the Coast Guard boats at Haulover Park inlet, and flying around the West side of Cuba.

The focus shifts to the violence that came with the business in the middle section. From prison, Ayala tells the story of his quick rise through the ranks to become the main assassin for Griselda Blanco (“La Madrina”), and then the story pretty much stick with her. She’s painted as the leader of one side in the early 80s cocaine war, having guys killed along with their wives and children, laying waste to anyone who rubs her the wrong way, and generally being all capital-R ruthless. Ayala is the star of the movie, sympathetic and serious, even as he describes systematically tracking down and killing a dude who slighted Blaco’s son outside a police station.

In the third act the movie makes the case that the cocaine trade is singularly responsible for Miami’s current financial clout. We see the sleepy resort/retirement community of the 1970s, the building boom that came in the 80s, and the economic contraction that came when Regan cracked down on the drug trade in the mid-80s. At the time, 90% of the cocaine imported into the US came through Miami. There are enough quotes from experts that connect the dots between the drugs and the financial status of the whole city (why are there so many banks in Brickell, anyway?) that make the argument seem quite plausible. When the big bust came (Roberts and Munday both spent time in prison, as did Blanco), the city had supposedly been given enough of a push that the economy flew on its own.

I think everyone already knows that this is a fascinating film, but I’m throwing in my “me too” anyway. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s how much it relies on straight interviews. Besides the three main guys, we get lots of police, experts, and a few smaller criminals. The filmmakers don’t help themselves by trying weird montage effects and transitions between the interviews and other bits. And there’s lots of use of photographs, sometimes manipulated for graphic effect. Maybe this is all done about as well as it could have been, but the fact is that the old-Miami footage is the only thing actually worth watching, and Cocaine Cowboys would probably work just as well with the picture turned off. But that’s not so bad — the three main subjects are intriguing, and the pacing of the narrative is perfect.

One other thing: it’s graphic. They went and got crime-scene pictures of all the shootings, and they sprinkled them throughout the movie at the appropriate points. No half-assing it here.