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July/August 2006

Local Filmmakers Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben investigate South Florida’s glamorous and violent ’80s in their documentary Cocaine Cowboys

By Tristram Korten

Cocaine is on a comeback, says Alfred Spellman. Ask and he’ll tell you that the price of a kilo today is “cheaper than it has ever been.” With an academic’s command of the facts, he’ll recite the figures for you. “In the late 1970s, early 1980s, cocaine was going for $50,000 to $60,000 a kilo,” he says. “Today it costs $19,000 to $20,000.”

So how does a relatively clean-cut kid (he’s 27) with no arrest record know so much about the mighty yeyo, the economic engine of backwater republics throughout the Caribbean and South America and scourge of border guards from El Paso to Key West? Well, Spellman, a producer, and his partner, Billy Corben, a director, spent the last two years studying the matter—specifically the impact it had on their hometown, Miami.

On July 11th, 1979, when Spellman and Corben were barely a year old, a party-supply van pulled into the parking lot at Dadeland Mall. Two drug-dealer hit men armed with automatic weapons stepped out and unleashed a barrage of bullets at their target in the Crown Liquor store. The shots fired that day would reverberate for decades to come, helping label Miami the free-fire zone of the cocaine-fueled 1980s and ultimately haunt the two young filmmakers.

That firefight ushered in an era of high glamour and excess married to a brutality rarely seen outside a war zone. The drug of the go-go ’80s spawned a riotous nightlife in pre-South Beach Miami, defined by the members-only Mutiny Club in Coconut Grove’s Mutiny Hotel. A cascade of characters circulated through the hotel’s lobby, bar and opulent theme rooms, such as the Egyptian Room. The Latin-American dopers, the lawyers who protected them, the cops who chased them and the spies who observed them all partied in the Mutiny.

And it was tales of those days that prompted the filmmaking team to set out and discover if Miami was truly the town that cocaine built. The result of their effort is the documentary film Cocaine Cowboys, which they hope definitively answers that question.

The independently produced film premiered April 26th at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York and was a buzzing success. All five screenings sold out. Alec Baldwin and Steve Van Zandt attended the premiere party at the Hotel on Rivington on the city’s Lower East Side. The Wall Street Journal picked Cowboys as one of the festival’s “most promising” pictures. The New York Post dubbed it the “definitive” film “about how Miami became the drug capital of the United States.” Now back in their Miami Beach studio, Corben and Spellman are in negotiations with a distributor and may have a deal inked by the time this article is published. Unfortunately when I caught up with them, Corben was out of town, so Spellman did all the talking.

The answer, by the way, to whether Miami is what it is today because of the raucous drug trade two decades ago is “absolutely, 100 percent,” Spellman asserts without hesitation. “Miami was a city on the verge of social and economic ruin when this came along.”

He goes on to explain with practiced fluency the combination of factors that made Miami fertile terrain to be reinvented by outlaws. It had an aging population, a sudden influx of immigrants, especially after Cuba’s Mariel Boatlift, and ongoing urban unrest, most notably the McDuffie riots in 1980. “The city really did not have the infrastructure to deal with all of this,” Spellman says. As one policeman reflects in the movie, a “perfect storm” of social conditions was created. An overburdened law-enforcement community could only try to play catch-up as drug dealers set up a base of operations.

The movie tells its story through some carefully selected narratives, starting with Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday. Together they were responsible for pioneering a partnership with Colombia’s Medellín cartel that brought $2 billion worth of cocaine into the United States.

Both subjects are articulate and forthright and delight in recounting the tale of those early years as they rushed to help supply meet a newfound, and growing, demand. Roberts was the people person, a slick glad-hander with a mustache and a taste for Ferraris. Munday, a real-life MacGyver, busied himself with devising ingenious ways to smuggle the product into the country. One of his favorites was rigging metal canisters with radio beacons.

The canisters were loaded with coke and dropped in the ocean by a plane, then located and picked up by a boat. Eventually, both men were apprehended, convicted and served nearly a decade in prison (but not before Munday had hid on the lam for six years). Their sentences reflect how early in the drug war it was at the time. Soon after their arrest, federal laws were changed to mandate life sentences for those convicted of trafficking at their level.

As successful as they were, Roberts and Munday operated during a brief period in the coke trade before wholesale violence took over. That era was inaugurated locally by Griselda Blanco, a Miami-based Colombian dealer also known as the “Black Widow.” Her influence is compellingly captured in the documentary by the charismatic Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, Blanco’s number-one hit man. It was Blanco who ordered the Dadeland hit.

Ayala gives his interview from prison. In 1993 he pleaded guilty to several murders and agreed to cooperate against Blanco to avoid the death penalty. But he talks with such nonchalance about his career killing people at the direction of the crazed and increasingly paranoid Blanco, including the firing of a stray bullet that killed the young son of his intended target, that Ayala might as well be sitting in his living room recounting baseball scores.

Backing up the anecdotes is archival footage describing how Miami banks did not have enough space to store all the cash deluging the city. This was in the days before federal regulations required all banks to report cash deposits of $10,000 or more. In the early ’80s, Miami’s Federal Reserve Bank had a $6 billion cash surplus, more than all the other Federal Reserve banks in the country combined.

And that, of course, goes to the heart of the film. A pile of money like that, dirty or not, doesn’t just sit around. And as a result things change.

“You had honest citizens benefiting inadvertently—bankers, jewelers, car dealers, real-estate agents,” Spellman says. “In the film [local newscaster] Al Sunshine talks about how trafficking opened up legitimate Miami’s eyes to the economic possibilities of becoming the trade capital of the Americas.”

It also gave the town an outlaw’s cachet, the sexy patina of danger, soon to be exploited on television in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice and on film in Brian De Palma’s Scarface.

The fact that a paid assassin and a couple of international drug dealers simply brag about their exploits for much of the movie has struck more than one viewer as insensitive. But the lack of judgment is also the appeal. As New York magazine wrote in its Tribeca preview: “Most of this festival’s documentaries are earnest and eager, which is probably why the fest’s most amoral documentary seems like such fun. Billy Corben’s often hilarious, exuberant documentary practically celebrates the bloodbath that was Miami’s cocaine heyday, while delivering more solid reporting facts than most of its sober competitors.”

Spellman shrugs. “Do we celebrate it? No more so than The Godfather celebrates the Italian Mafia,” he answers. “Things like gentrification happened here a lot faster as a result. You had to hit rock bottom before you could rebuild.” And as crime reporter Edna Buchanan says in the flick, at perhaps too high a price.

Spellman and Corben originally submitted the picture to the Sundance Film Festival, but it didn’t make it in. No matter. That’s old ground for them. In 2001 the partners’ documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent premiered at Sundance, igniting a buzz that put them on the map. The film investigated a stripper’s claim that she was raped at a University of Florida frat party. The documentary was so compelling because one of the frat brothers videotaped the entire evening. That footage makes up the core of the movie.

With both movies the producer/director team are making good on their claim to stick it out in their hometown. After the swirl of interest following Raw Deal Spellman says, “Everyone told us that to be in the film business you need to be in L.A. Well, we don’t buy that.” Their aim, as they’ve said before, is to be the film voice of Miami, like Spike Lee is for New York, Richard Linklater is for Austin, and the way in which M. Night Shyamalan sets all his movies around Philadelphia. “Cowboys is our first project where we tell the story of our hometown,” Spellman says.

Their current project, Clubland, is a behind-the-scenes documentary series about the cutthroat business of Miami’s nightlife. They plan to premiere it in a decidedly unconventional, but increasingly popular, format: as a series of Webcasts, also called “Webisodes.”

If you were wondering, that’s how they are able to say with certainty that cocaine is on the comeback.

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