Cocaine Cowboys is a very intriguing look at how Florida was transformed from a place of shuffleboard playing seniors, into the cocaine capital of the United States. Filmmaker Billy Corben tells this tale of drug smuggling and distribution, using talking heads and giving us a multilayered look at how a part of the U.S. was not only changed, but turned upside down.
We begin with John Pernell Roberts who gives us a somewhat simplistic account of his life as a cocaine wholesaler. He seems like a nice enough guy considering he did work for the Italian Mafia and the Medellin Cartel. After this we are treated to guys like Mickey Munday who was a drug smuggler, but, aside from getting caught, was very shrewd and conducted his business in a smart almost detached way. There are other people interviewed, but the one who really caught my attention was Rafael Cardona Salazar aka Rafa. This guy was a no nonsense enforcer who also, matter-of-factly describes his exploits as the highest ranking officer of the Medellin Cartel in the United State. What was so weird about hearing him talk was how charming he seemed. Almost as if he was at peace with himself and the life he used to lead.
These guys break down how the business was done, who was really in charge, how the cocaine was brought into the U.S., and ultimately how it was distributed and became as popular as it is. One of the more interesting items of note was the fact that the person behind the Medellin cocaine trade was a very bad woman named Griselda Blanco. If you know anything about the Latin culture, it's that pride and machismo are almost interchangeable. To have a woman like her (she was known as "The Godmother of the Cocaine Trade") in charge and acting as ruthlessly and violently as she did, says a lot about the kind of person she was.
Like many films, this one has the problem of cramming years of a story into 118 minutes. Told in a flashy style that would most likely make the purists among documentary films squirm, this movie seemed to always be looking for ways to tell it's story more visually. In fact, it goes at the kind of kinetic pace that I imagine one might go at if they were actually on the substance of cocaine. Mixing talking head footage, still photos that seem to move, grim police scenes, and the throbbing Jan Hammer soundtrack (he did the original score for the Miami Vice TV show), what transpires is a film that plays like the classic cautionary tales of rags to riches to rags that permeate this country.
Having been to Fort Lauderdale a number of times when I was younger (that's where my Grandfather lived), my visits took place when a lot of the events in this movie were transpiring. Granted I wasn't in Miami and based on the events shown in this film, I am more than thankful for that. What impressed me the most was how smart and down to earth these criminals were. It's almost as if time has given them a new perspective on what they were doing. I don't think I got a sense of penitence, so much as I got a feeling that these guys had started something, it was a business, and then that business got taken over by forces out of their control. Since these men were businessmen, they simply cut their losses and moved on to other business.
Considering all the information that filmmaker Billy Corben had to sift through in order to tell the story of Cocaine Cowboys, I am highly impressed that this film was as easy to follow and as entertaining as it was. We have films like Scarface and Miami Vice that deal with the same subject matter, but we can hold those at movies at a distance because they are fiction. Cocaine Cowboys works because it's downright scary that there are really people like this in the world who aren't fictional at all.