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Watch “Cocaine Cowboys” and Learn the History of Miami’s Drug Trade

“Cocaine Cowboys" is an education in the undeniable connection between Miami and the growth of the cocaine trade.
March 29, 2007 By Matt Meltzer in  | 24 Comments

If you are like me and have lived in Miami for a while now, you have no doubt at some point run across a hardened old local who will go on and on about what a great city this used to be. And how now it is a festering cesspool of filth and crime. None of them ever care to explain how Miami went from Paradise by the Sea to “Detroit with a Beach,” but filmmaker Billy Corben attempts to try and explain it to us newcomers in “Cocaine Cowboys.” Apparently it has something to do with drugs.

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“Cocaine Cowboys,” released this month on DVD, is a fast paced, quick edited 90-minute education in the undeniable connection between Miami going from Leisure Village to Global Village and the growth of the cocaine trade. Beginning with the infamous Daytime Shootout at Dadeland Mall in 1979, the film chronicles the rise of the cocaine business in South Florida in the 70’s and 80’s as told by some of the people in its most important roles. The first we meet is Mickey Munday, a guy who grew up in the Everglades and is about as Old Florida as they come. He was the leading transporter of cocaine form South America to the United States in his day, and demonstrates that wile many like to blame the cocaine boom on immigrants the locals played a big part as well.

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There are also many interesting revelations in the film, among them that when Miami was the murder capital of the United States in the early 80’s, the police department was stretched so thin that they went from requiring that officers had never used drugs to basically admitting anyone onto the force who did not show up with a nose bleed. We also learn that while the rest of the United States experienced this apparent “recession” in the late 70’s, nobody in South Florida felt a ripple. Why? Well, it seems that while the manufacturing and service segments of our economy are sometimes sensitive to outside forces, the glamorous-illegal-drug segment seems to stay fairly healthy no matter what the financial climate. All those unemployed people had to feel good somehow. Another Cocaine fun fact we learn: The Miami Federal Reserve processed something like 10 times more cash than any other federal reserve in the United States in the early 1980’s. And we’re all pretty sure its not because people were just averse to using credit cards.

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The weaving theme of the film is the gruesome tale of Griselda Blanco, better known as the Godmother of the cocaine trade. As anyone familiar with Latin culture knows, male dominance is more or less a given. So for a woman to garner respect, much less fear in an industry dominated by Latin men, she must be 10 times more brutal than they are. And Blanco made sure the men knew she was all business. She not only was indirectly responsible for hundreds of murders of rival drug rings in Miami during the 70’s and 80’s, but would routinely kill members of her own organization she thought might be plotting against her.  The interviews with her main enforcer, Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, are disturbing for their gory detail, but are downright terrifying in the nonchalance with which he recounts some of their more brutal executions. Perhaps a reason Ayala’s interviews were done from prison.

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This film is done in that 1980’s style which manages to capture the frenetic energy and intensity of the time period. It is that energy that exemplified Miami to so many people of my generation, and why many of us chose to move here. If you do not like quick change editing or intense on-screen video, you may become slightly nauseated by this film. However it would be an injustice to the subject matter to have filmed it any other way. The score is done by Jan Hammer who, as any Miamiphile knows, also wrote the score for the Miami Vice TV show. It fits the time period and the characters perfectly and provides an excellent backdrop for the stories unfolding onscreen.

If you are new to South Florida, or at least did not live here during the era of the Cocaine Cowboys, this film is a must-see. It will allow you to understand that the high-rise condo you now call home would not be there were it not for the likes of Griselda Blanco and Mickey Munday. While some, like Herald reporter Edna Buchanan, lament this fact, others see it as the necessary evil that made South Florida a major player on the world economic scene. Why else would so many Latin American banks have headquarters here? The 90 minutes that “Cocaine Cowboys” encompasses are intense and therefore the movie seems longer than it really is. But if it a ride you enjoy being on, nobody seems to mind.

Learn about the cast

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John Pernal Roberts - Cocaine wholesaler, Roberts is involved in two of the most successful criminal organizations in the world - and became a multi-millionaire as a result - all before his 30th birthday.

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Mickey Mundane - A self-described “old Miami redneck”, when he was busted by the FBI they referred to his smuggling operation as the “most sophisticated” the government has ever seen.

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Jorge “Rivi” Ayala - Born in Colombia and raised in Chicago, Rivi was Griselda’s main enforcer.

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Max Mermelstein - Snitch and star witness, Max testified that between 1981 and and his arrest in 1985, he smuggled 56 tons of cocaine and send $300 million back to the Medellin Drug Cartel.

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Rapael “Rafa” Cardona Salazar - Highest ranking member of the Medillin Cartel in the United States in the 1980’s.

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Miguel “Miguelito” Perez - Arrived in the United States during the Mariel boat lift. He was Griselda’s most ruthless killers, responsible for the Pupo Mejia stabbing at Miami International Airport.

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Griselda “La Madrina” Blanco - The Godmother of Miami’s Cocaine Trade.

Related Categories: Movie Reviews

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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24 Comments on

"Watch “Cocaine Cowboys” and Learn the History of Miami’s Drug Trade"

Maria says:

Great review, Matt.  I might actually become nauseated as even my father’s home made travel videos make me go for the bowl followed by Pepto chaser.

Incidentally, I was here during that time and my family was affected during the recession.  Construction came to a halt, believe it or not, which is why we moved to Venezuela for three years.

Posted on 04/02/2007 at 12:22 PM

Miguel says:

Like always, the goverment of the United states always creates a problem for them selfs, cover it up and blame it on someone else. Perfect example, MS-13(Mara Salvatrucha), look it up and you’ll see what i mean.

Posted on 08/28/2007 at 8:15 PM

Mike says:

The only thing that lead to the killing and disaster was human nature, Jelous and Envious people.  Money also fueled alot of the crime.  The actual traffickers were your ordinary everyday people that wanted to get a good buck, and have fun while doing it…maybe somewhat careless but, if you made $150,000 on a one hour trip to Columbia with no risks, would you? I would.

Posted on 11/02/2007 at 2:58 AM

Omar says:

Hell ya Mike I would! But I would have had the brains to get out of the business early enough to avoid legal issues…

Posted on 07/25/2008 at 8:41 PM

raj says:

i would like to join the bussiness ,any one interested contact me…

Posted on 08/09/2008 at 2:55 PM

tony says:

raj, you live in the fast lane

Posted on 09/02/2008 at 1:00 AM

Mike says:

Drugs are simply bad for EVERYONE, so sad! My grandmother was killed in West Philadelphia by a youth looking for money to fund his drug habit.

Posted on 10/05/2008 at 7:44 AM

Gabrielle says:

After watching Miami Vice - nothing surprises me - but still, who knew drugs were still this sought after.

Posted on 02/11/2009 at 11:59 PM

Matt Meltzer says:

To answer your question, Gabrielle, pretty much anyone living in Miami.

Posted on 02/16/2009 at 2:18 PM

Luis Pereira says:

IS THAT TRUE THAT JORGE RIVI AYALA WAS STABBED IN jAIL BY ONE OF GRESILDA’S HIRED HITMAN???HOW BAD WAS HE STABBED..i IMAGINE HE MUST BE IN p.c.(punk city)

Posted on 03/12/2009 at 5:02 AM

Sober on SoBe says:

There is sure a lot to learn, Miami has a very interesting drug history, these people have become legends and role models for current drug dealers. I just hope “Cocaine Cowboys” is realistic enough to show the real face of drugs.

Posted on 04/14/2009 at 2:37 PM

Breanna says:

I always thought this information was very helpful.

Posted on 08/01/2009 at 3:31 PM

ampme says:

Rivi lets go see him

Posted on 01/20/2010 at 12:28 AM

Michigan says:

There’s certainly a shady look to most of these characters, isn’t there?

Posted on 01/21/2010 at 2:10 PM

DERRICK says:

yes drugs are no good for any one but they are a part of miami and i think every one that lives here should see the film I LOVED IT!!!

Posted on 06/28/2010 at 1:05 PM

ovi_wan says:

Does any one know how did the war between the two mafias end (Colombian & Cuban)? How stop them and how?

Posted on 01/21/2011 at 12:35 AM

RANDRAND says:

raj-we can take you on a tour of the hoy spots of that era, tell you the stories-even give you a drive-by of the fading players that dominated that era and were big players.WE WOULD, OF COURSE-BE DOING THIS AS A PUBLIC SERVICE TO TOTALLY UN-GLAMORIZE AND DISSUADE YOU FROM ENTERING INTO THIS TRADE OF CORRUPTION, FACTS ARE-MUCH OF SUPPLEMENTED HOUSEHOLD INCOME WAS DUE TO DRUG TRADE ON THE SIDE. AS GUARDS, DURING THAT ERA-THE OUTSOURCING AGENCIES HAD NO CARE WHETHER THEIR CLIENTS WERE INTO THE DRUG TRADE OR NOT-IT MADE PROTECTING ANYTHING OR ANYONE A CORRUPTED NIGHTMARE-VERY STRESSFUL. THE CLIENTS ALWAYS THREATENED TO MAKE THINGS UP IN YOUR FILE-AND OFTEN HAD SWEETHEART DEALS TO PIPE ENDLESS FECKLESS GUARDS IN AND OUT.  BUT SOME OF US WERE AGENTS-AND WE TOLD WHAT WE SAW-AND WE BIT THEM BACK-GOOD!

Posted on 10/01/2011 at 9:56 PM

El Mariel says:

John was nothing than drug dealer. Cocaine Cowboys dun even show us the real cowboys. Jorge “Rivi” Ayala was the only cowboy in documentary. Bolivian drug trafficker Roberto Suarez Gomez collaborated with Bolivian dicator Luis Garcia Meza Tejada in 1980-1981 cocaine smuggling in South Florida. Roberto Gomez, portrayed in Scarface as Alejandro Sosa, was real Bolivian cocaine trafficker and cocaine cowboy as well as General Luis Tejada and Colonel Luis Arce Gomez of Bolivia. Dadeland shootout in Kendall Mall, 1979 was a newcomers from Colombia working for Madellin Cartel that shot a Colombian drug dealer and his Cuban bodyguard in the parking lot and Crown Liquore Store. Coca leaf used for the making of cocaine was distributed from Bolivia and Peru, so Madellin Cartel had. Cali Cartel were soft and established Los Pepes (Perseguido por Pablo Escobar) and declared war on Pablo Esobar.
Haiti was ideal location for Colombian drug smugglers and cocaine was often smuggles to Miami in freighters. In 1987, Haitian military Michele François attended party held in Colombia celebrating Haitian-Colombian cocaine shipment of 66,000 lbs to the United States and Michel was paid $10 million for assistance. Military leader of Panama Manuel Noriega had relationship with CIA until 1980. Noriega was emerging as a drug smuggler for the Madellin Cartel in Panamian cocaine trafficking. Florida’s Turnpike, Colombian enforcer Conrado “El Loco” Zapgado racing along turnpike in 1979 opened fire with MAC-10 at drug rivals associated with Dadeland shootout. In Miami, Colombian enforcer gunned down the attorney in his Miami office in 1989. A lot of Cuban drug dealers enforced Colombians in the cocaine cowboys shootings. Four bank officials were charged with money laundering at Great American Bank of Dade County in 1982. In 1987, Don Aronow was murdered in North Miami Beach near his Cigarette Racing Team manufacturing plant for speeding boats favored by drug smugglers. In 1993, federal agents charged Armando “Mandy” Fernandez on drug trafficking and seized his luxury-car dealership in Coral Gables. A local Colombian trafficker Severo Escobar working for Jose “Pepe” Cabrero Sarmiento was charged in 1992 with smuggling 15,000 lbs of cocaine into South Florida. On the morning of April 20, 1992, Dade Comissioner Joe Gersten reported his Mercedes had been stolen from his Coral Gables estate, a drug dealer and a hooker told Miami Dade Police that they robbed Comissioner Garsten at knifepoint while he was with another hooker east of Biscayne Boulevard. Rather than face prosecution he fled to Australia.

Posted on 02/10/2012 at 12:09 AM

David says:

Griselda Blanco got killed 2 weeks ago here in Medellin

Posted on 09/17/2012 at 11:17 AM

Gus says:

Hi David, thanks for commenting. The Griselda killing was big news in Miami. You can read more about it in our forum -

http://forums.miamibeach411.com/general-discussion/11849-griselda-blanco-cocaine-cowboys-gunned-down-colombia.html

If you have any details, we’d love to hear them.

Posted on 09/17/2012 at 11:26 AM

JohnDoe says:

Griselda Blanco isn’t dead, that was a fake murder. She faked her own death. She is living in USA again.

Posted on 07/18/2014 at 7:25 AM

JohnDoe says:

Griselda Blanco isn’t dead, that was a fake murder. She faked her own death. She’s back in USA.

Posted on 07/18/2014 at 7:27 AM

Madame M says:

John Doe how did u come about that assumption that she’s alive?

Posted on 07/18/2014 at 9:49 PM

The Undertaker 616 says:

I’m curious also John Doe?

Posted on 02/19/2015 at 8:51 PM

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