The conviction of a Biscayne Boulevard shop owner this month was the latest crackdown by a federal task force targeting illegal trafficking in a substance that costs more per ounce than cocaine, or even gold.
Black rhino horn.
The horns, prized in some Asian nations as popular but unproven folk remedies, are at the center of an international black market with a hub in South Florida. High prices and demand have triggered a poaching bloodbath in Africa that threatens the survival of black rhinos and fueled a growing illegal trade in old taxidermy mounts from museums or private collections.
It’s a criminal network run like sex, gun and drug trafficking and is often linked to the same players, said Edward Grace, assistant director for the U.S. Department of Justice’s division of Wildlife Law Enforcement, which oversees a multiagency investigative effort called “Operation Crash.” Crash is another name for a herd of rhino.
“It’s like any drug investigation,’’ said Grace. “Take out cocaine or heroin and replace it with rhino horn.’’
Miami, already a nexus for smugglers dealing in an array of protected wildlife, also has figured in the illicit horn trade. There been three rhino-related busts in the last two years alone.
For years, Caribbean governments have voiced concerns that U. S. counter-narcotics efforts in Mexico and Central America would force drug traffickers back into their region to push their products on go-fast boats and cargo ships.
Those fears are being realized as a top State Department official said the U.S. is concerned about disturbing increases in drugs flowing through the Caribbean over the past there years.
Historically, there are three routes by which traffickers over the last 30 years have moved products through the Caribbean. There is the western route, which either parallels the Central American mainland or works its way into or through Jamaica en route normally, but not always to the United States and the U.S. market; a central route, which process through Hispaniola, and that means either Haiti or the Dominican Republic. And that route has represented, at least over the last two years in our opinion, the lion share, an absolute and overwhelming majority of the amount of product that we believe is transiting the Caribbean on the way to market. The third and at this point, a small but growing percentage, is the eastern Caribbean route.
Miami’s most successful and well-known filmmaking crew is about to kick things up a notch.
Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, founders of the media studio rakontur, made their initial media splash in 2001, when their controversial documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, an exploration of a purported rape, premiered at the Sundance International Film Festival and made the cover of the New York Post.
Then came Cocaine Cowboys in 2006, a recounting of the early-1980s South Florida drug wars that convincingly argued that the backbone of Miami’s infrastructure was built on the cocaine trade.
That film earned Corben and Spellman, whose headquarters are housed in South Beach, a devoted cult following that grew with each successive film (Limelight, Square Grouper, The U, Broke).
“The energy that they have is infectious, and it comes across in their movies,” says Connor Schell, vice president of production for ESPN Films, which aired The U and Broke. “Their style is so frenetic, and their movies have such an interesting pace that when Billy pitched us on how they wanted to do The U [originally titled Hurricane Season], we bought into it immediately. We’ve had a great relationship with them. Their style is very innovative, and we’re talking to them about collaborating on another documentary now.”
Brad Abramson, vice president of original programming for VH1, says he was impressed by Corben and Spellman when they lobbied to direct the four-part miniseries The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop, which aired in February.
“They knew an incredible amount about hip hop for a couple of white Jewish kids from Miami,” Abramson says. “They blew us away with their knowledge of all the details and their love of the culture. They are a boutique company: They work on one project at a time and give it their all. We were aware of them from the Cocaine Cowboys days. They are the kings of the hidden anecdote. They know how to find just the right nugget to bring out.”
“Filmmaking is like a band,” Spellman says. “Everyone has to play their own instrument and their own role in making a film. David has been editing our docs. Billy and I have a great partnership because we play off each other’s strengths. He directs, and I produce. When you look at other filmmaking teams, they all have a certain rapport. I think we’ve developed our own rhythm and style. We make a pretty formidable team.”
We didn’t have much funding when we started making the documentary in 2003, so we decided to shoot just enough to cut a reel. In that first production round, we interviewed Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, Detectives Al Singleton and Raul Diaz, attorney Sam Burstyn and Joe Davis.
Joe Davis made the first cut after we saw an interview he gave to Al Sunshine at the height of the Mariel violence that plagued Miami in 1981:
Dr. Davis was a legend among the tight-knit community who examine dead bodies for a living. He was hired to review the results of Elvis’s autopsy. When the House Select Committee on Assassinations was investigating the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King in 1976, they called Joe Davis. He was once able to determine that a homicide victim ate his last meal at Shorty’s because Davis recognized the smell of the BBQ sauce when he opened up the victim’s stomach.
The Miami Herald cataloged the breadth of his knowledge: “Davis lectured and wrote on a wide range of topics, including the deadly effects of man-of-war stings, peanut butter as a choking hazard, drowning, self-immolations, carbon monoxide poisoning, auto-erotic asphyxiation, rape and cocaine psychosis.”
Davis retired in 1996 after 10,000 autopsies and 40 years as the chief of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office.
In May 2003, I called Dr. Davis at home to ask for an interview. He agreed to do it at his old office.
We were offered the VIP autopsy suite to shoot the interview and while Billy and our DP Armando Salas started working on the shot, Dave went looking for an electric outlet to plug-in a light. He opened a door to an adjoining room and came face-to-face with an assistant medical examiner sitting at a desk, wielding an electric saw, cutting off the crown of the skull of a baby who died a day or two earlier. That really made quite an impression of all of us.
I was looking forward to Dr. Davis’s tales from the trenches of the Cocaine Wars: public machine gunnings and MAC-10 riddled bodies. But when we started rolling, he spent the first twenty minutes of the interview talking about highway guard rails. Turns out Dr. Davis was an early highway safety crusader and saved countless lives because of his lobbying. He was one of the first to use data to make the connection between fatal accidents and alcohol. On issues like swimming pool safety, cigarettes and pesticides, Dr. Davis had a strong opinion and voiced it frequently.
During the two hour interview, he walked us through nearly a half century of Death in Miami.
When Carl Hiaasen reported in 1987 that Miami had become the Car-Trunk Murder Capital of the United States, Dr. Davis was non-plussed: "It’s a bother. Another thing that’s annoying…now you find a car parked at the airport — stinks to high heaven — and for some reason you have to wait six hours while they go find a judge to get a court order to open the thing up! Everybody knows there’s a body inside."
I never saw Dr. Davis again after the interview. We spoke a few times on the phone and I heard that he liked the documentary. We reached out when we were putting together the Cocaine Cowboys cast reunion last March, but he had already moved upstate to Tallahassee. That’s where he died yesterday, peacefully, in his sleep in his home on Lake Bradford.
In a 1997 Tropic Magazine profile, staff writer Michelle Genz asked him how he viewed death: “With wonderment. How do you reach a point where scientific knowledge and theology blend? You wonder what’s beyond.”
His busiest time was the post-Mariel/ “Cocaine Cowboys’’ era of the 1980s, when homicides regularly topped 600 annually. Davis had to rent refrigerated meat trucks as backup morgues, and railed publicly against the carnage.
He placed the blame squarely on Colombian drug criminals and a certain element of Mariel refugees.
“These guys are spaced out,’’ Davis said in a 1981 television interview. “They are psychologically totally not even human. They’re animals — not even animals. That’s an insult to the animal kingdom.’’
In the first half of the year, his office had already received bodies 2,035 bodies, 374 of them homicides.
“I don’t see any relief in sight unless the federal govenrment comes in and moves out all the undesirable illegal aliens and cracks down on all the Colombian drug homicides,’’ Davis said. “And that would only be temporary.’’
He refused to back down after being called a bigot.
“I will not apologize for feeling very deeply that members of both of those groups have engaged in an orgy of killing the likes of the old roving bands of pirates and corsairs,’’ Davis told a Miami Herald columnist. “…Where is the sense of outrage…? We who deal with what’s happening are seeing the destruction of a community by people who shouldn’t be here in the first place.’’
For the last 40 years, some of the most famous pictures from some of the most famous events in South Florida have come from Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman. Along the way, he’s obsessively archived photos, negatives, slides.
After 40 years with The Miami Herald, Chapman has finally retired. His legacy is archived in his spare bedroom, in teetering cardboard box towers.
Miami New Times: Cocaine Cowboys Creator Gets Called ‘Tweeting Twit’ By Crotchety, Out Of Touch Columnist:
"[Fabiola Santiago] makes a point of using his legal name, "William Corben," like she was an angry mother reprimanding her son. She calls him "condescending," and a "bad-boy" narcissist, and chides his "stupidity" and "runaway self-promotion." Never mind that Santiago herself comes off as condescending and slightly stupid. Worst of all, not a single bit of Santiago’s painful column is particularly funny, clever or illuminating.”
Here is a most unusual kind of haven in Miami — one where the business of movies, the craft of filmmaking and the love of cinema all intersect. No wonder they want to keep the location quiet.
Here, too, is something you won’t find anywhere else in South Florida: A multimedia company with a decade’s worth of work that has earned national attention; several intriguing projects in the pipeline (including what is likely to be their most commercial film to date); and absolutely no plans to ever relocate.
The bond between Corben, Spellman and Cypkin — who are all 33, became friends at Highland Oaks Middle School, made their first short film in high school and co-founded rakontur in 2001 — has grown stronger with each of their successes.
“Billy and Alfred have a strong Miami sensibility: Their movies are very redolent of that city,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which has distributed several of rakontur’s films theatrically and on DVD. “ Cocaine Cowboys did an amazing job of soaking up the color and culture and details of that era. But their greatest attribute is a nose for an interesting story. Every film they’ve done has had jaw-dropping aspects to it. They make you say ‘Whaaat?’ And they keep getting better as filmmakers. The leap from Raw Deal to Cocaine Cowboys was incredible, and they’ve only improved since then.”
Thanks @lesleyabravanel: “Come celebrate a decade with Spellman and Corben” (Taken with instagram)
Miami Herald this Sunday: A Decade of Decadence (Taken with instagram)