The Cocaine Cowboys I is one of the most interesting crime documentaries ever filmed. And the main reason for this relays on real story behind the scenes and their real protagonists. This is the story of how cocaine first entered the United States in huge amounts, substituted the widely spread consume of pot and became what it is today, a multibillion dollar business, a large scale industry to satisfy the needs of greedy traffickers at both sides of the border and the lust of the consumers. How it eventually became a blood thirsty business, on how this industry kept relocating itself once the heat was too much to handle in some centers, on how smoking guns were the ones settling the terms in this business, on how technology was an organic part of smuggling the substance into USA and on how the traffickers on all parts saw their lives changed at first to become millionaires in months and latter on to see themselves staring the 2 by 2 square meters of a federal penitentiary if they were lucky enough to make it that far and negotiate with the state a deal.
In this documentary review I will go over art and reality, on the film itself and add some critics on my own as well, while mentioning as well other sources that add more information into the facts. I sometimes wonder is www.whentheshipcomesin.com is more of a documentaries blog or a movies blog, for more and more I get my hicks from the real thing, that happens to be more creative and more drastic than the invented stuff in some movies.
The set of all this heat was Miami, Florida. A quiet and peaceful community for the elderly in the sixties, where marihuana was already accepted as the drug of the people, but it reached to the point where there was so much of it that the dealer couldn’t sell it all. This city, filled with people from Spanish speaking countries, became the capital of cocaine in the United States.
Small gangsters, traffickers and couriers witnessed how cocaine could transform your life in a matter of months; these new cocaine lords will make much more amounts of cash in a much shorter time than the Italian mafia. Teamed with the best lawyers, accountants, technology, they will reach rich and famous and average consumers alike and serve them with the white powder to a point where selling 100 weekly kilos wouldn’t satisfy the local demand.
In Colombia everyone had a cut into it, so the Americans coming to Medellin to get the drugs on planes were never troubled, never had a problem. The favorite way back would be from the east side of Cuba, for the patrolling activity was around the Bahamas. So the plane would head North through Georgia and make a turn to the South into Miami, and thus, nobody would suspect from a plane coming from the North.
Another tactic implemented by traffickers, according to this documentary, was to through the cargo into the sea so speedy boats would take it. It took several attempts until it run smoothly for the Colombians wouldn’t rap the cocaine in a water proof fashion. The boat would make it into the Miami harbor through the “front door”, from there into the cars under surveillance of another team member, the spotter, up in a tall building, supervising no coast guards or cops were in the area at the time of the disembark of the substance.
The trafficker would use working men looking for extra cash as transporter and rent numerous numbers of houses where to store the large amounts of cocaine. From there to the whole sellers, who would break into smaller packages as per retailer’s request. They could make $40-50 k of a single kilo in the street; the transport from Medellin to Miami was paid at a fee of $3500/kilo. The tactic was “keep everybody away from everybody”, this way there is no tracing back.
Money was kept in different locations away from the cocaine houses. Once the sell completed, the same us citizens that carried the drug into USA, would carry back Ochoa, Rafa and Escobar their money (no less than 10 million dollars per plane).The planes won’t fly back straight to Colombia, but into the money laundry paradise of Panama. The Panamanian army would take the money into a bank in the country where they have their accounts. The delivery guys were making 1 million dollar each per trip.
Everybody was doing cocaine back in the Miami of the 80′s, at every party, clubs, restaurants; it was everywhere, at the hand of regular middle class hand, as coca cola or pop corn, it was the cool thing to do. At every bathroom there were lines and people pushing shit up their nose.
The authorities and law enforcement, used to catch here and there 500 grams, 1 kilo packages, found it hard to cope with the more common tone of powder. District attorney was hitting new records case by case with the amounts of coke apprehended.
Colombia-Miami cocaine industry (Cocaine Inc.), represented 80% of the cocaine activities in the US, and were hitting figures of up to 7 billion dollars a year only in Miami, meaning each householder was expending $12,000/year. So much was the use of cocaine that the chances to find cocaine leftovers in a random dollar bill were pretty high.
Cocaine overdose increased into 88%, two a week casualties was the rate. People started smoking it.
Main cocaine traffickers in Miami could make 50 grants a week while the country wide recession, unemployment was huge, but in Miami there were not enough gold Rolex watches stores to supply the local market, likewise with fancy cars, real estate and boats. No sign of recession in Miami. Millions of dollars from the cocaine industry were pouring into Miami’s economy. Retailers, as anyone else, closed their eyes as per where was the money pouring from: “Don’t ask, don’t tell, take the money and run”. Dozens of night clubs opened, were fed by the powder money. Horse races became a fashionable sport, having a private “heli” was not something reserved to the high society anymore. The guys moving the cables of this business had so much cash, they didn’t know where to put it.
Everybody had a price, from Noriega, to city managers, police departments. If stopped by a cop and found 50 kilos of cocaine in the trunk, a settlement was establish so both the cop and the trafficker would get away with it.
Four Miami mayors indicted, most of them convicted of corruption, contributions were made to the politicians through their parties, no questions asked.
The city was painted with new banks, when all knew Miami had no such volume of business or industry. These banks were reported to take in 6 billion dollars in extra cash from depositors a certain year, this made law enforcement suspicious.
Banks invested in huge counting machines. Numbers coming from authorities, expected a mid size Miami bank to send the Federal Reserve 12 million dollars in cash, while in one year this bank sent $600 million to the reserve. The Miami Federal Reserve Bank was entering more money than the whole of the country Federal Reserve banks combined.
Miami flourished with construction sites, new cranes building new skyscrapers, new condos, etc,..
But this happy Eden garden had a turning point of never return at the Dadeland Mall on july 11th, 1979 at 14:28 hrs: two Latin males entered a liquor store in the mall and started to spit fire from the barrels of 14 different weapons (shotguns, carbines, Uzis, mag 10, assorted hand guns,etc,…) into other 4 Latin guys. We all hear in movies that violence is bad for “business”, and this was it, the powder was now becoming responsible for dead bodies and for an unprecedented level of violence. All Colombian murders would result in an open/pending (not resolved case).
This first midday assault would become a frequent thing in Miami. It was the beginning of the war between Colombians and Cuban drug dealers. The Colombians trying to push the Cubans out and gain a higher share of the market. These now violent hit-men became to be known as the cocaine cowboys. Most of them from Medellin, living in South Florida, around 100,000 illegal immigrants of them. And these guys would do the job, Colombian style, killing all living members of a family, kids, cat and dog included. The trade mark of the cocaine cowboys was machine gun fire spraying in the streets.
It became so common to turn on your tv set and news opening with dead bodies due to cocaine dealers violence that only 4 or 5 dead bodies would drive your attention, like in the Chicago of the 20′s.
Miami became in the early 80′s the most dangerous place on earth. Only 1976 created 104 murders, during 1979 the rate escalated into 379 dead bodies and 500 in 1980, 621 in 1981.
Then in the 80′s high numbers of Cubans were authorized to flee their country, mostly the ones with police records, and people who could not produce any profit for Castro, all were sent to Miami, doubling the homicide rate. All of a sudden everybody in Florida would carry guns to defend themselves. The Police department acknowledged their lack of man power and resources, so they went on a blind hiring frenzy: from a standard of accepting you only if you had you not used drugs in the last 10 years into the hiring you on the condition of not to be high at the time of signing the contract.
This resulted in the largest corruption crises in the Miami Police Department: the entire academy recruit literally went to jail or died. People wouldn’t trust the law officers until new anti narcotics units were formed.
All this was explained in a Time magazine article of the year 1981 called “Miami, paradise lost” that literally crushed the city with delinquency records and stats, saying bottom line that the criminals were wining and the law abiding citizen was losing this battle for Miami.
New “enforcers” like Jorge Ayala, would make a name of their own by killing for a pay by one of the cartel families; he confessed involvement in 29 murders and suspected of another 12 during the cocaine wars. He started as a delivery boy passing cocaine for $1,000 a day. One faithful day he would meet the most important profile in the industry: Griselda Blanco.
Ayala happened to spoil a murder Griselda requested, so she met Ayala, explained to him the harm he have caused to her and that she expected from him to kill two brother she had targeted, and with this, she would call it even. Ayala was told that he had just had a chat with the godmother, and if he wouldn’t deliver, she would put a hit on him.
The main real character behind The Cocaine Cowboys was (and is?) Griselda Blanco. She was called the “madrina” or godmother. Born in Colombia at a single mother family, Griselda was frequently beated by her mother, who had to prostitute herself for a living. It was told that Griselda at her teenage years was the mastermind of the kidnapping of a wealthy family kid at Medellin and ultimately, after the negation of paying a ransom, she would murder the kid. A certain night, Griselda was so badly beaten than, bleeding and naked, left her house to never return. It was then than she will meet her first husband, and lately her second, with whom she will have three kids. She moved to New York and from there to Miami where she was known to police as a multikilo dealer and a serious threat to US. Griselda had no fear and was feared by all, and she liked it that way, she suffered so much during her childhood that she could share some of this with others.
She had to prove herself to the other male latino drug lords and show them she was the meanest you can get. She collected wealth around her. She had 3 older sons: Dixon, Uber and Osvaldo. Her last son was named Michael Corleone.
Griselda’s crew was responsible for the first Miami bloody strike related to the cocaine industry at the liquor store at the mall in ’79. Right there she started the cocaine wars and homicides multiplied by the numbers, she killed many colombians and cubans, becoming responsible for the majority of homicides in South Florida during 1979, 1980 and 1981.
There was always a reason for her to put a hit on someone and have him hit the ground. For this she employed a wide crew of hitmen: Chucho Castro, Jaime Bravo,Oscar Bravo, Diego Escobar, Mantec, Cubamba, Velazquez, Hugo, Melanyo, Toto, Carlos Venegas,Diego Sepulveda, Paco Sepulveda,etc,…
One day Osvaldo, one of Griselda’s son, wanted to spend the night at Chucho’s house, the later would agree to it and had a small quarrel. Osvaldo told her mother and Chucho had his days numbered from then on. She assigned Chuchos murder to Jorge Ayala. Ready to kill Chucho, Jorge, together with a colleague, rampaged on the road into Chuchos runing car and pulled their trigger of the M-16s that spitted rounds into Chuchos car, with the bad luck, of deadly injuring his son,who, to all’s surprise, he was as well travelling in his father’s car. From this day on, kids were an accepted toll in the cocaine war in Florida.
Chucho promised to retaliate and kill Jorge Ayala, but Jorge couldn’t care less. Jorge was the chief enforcer of Griselda, he controlled her team and during a period of years he was exclusively the only person who was making the killings.
Alfredo Lorenzo was one of Griselda’s customers, and he promised to Jorge that he will collect the money, in exchange of the 5 cocaine kilos he got from Jorge, in 2 weeks time. Griselda didn’t accepted any delays in her business and after the time that was agreed, she wouldn’t be interested in the money back to her anymore, she will take know your life, full stop.
As Jon Roberts (Coke trafficker of those days) put it: “The Italians, if you delay on payment day, they would try to figure out how to get their money back…the Colombians they act first and they think”.
Jorge Ayala says “this is not about the money, if someone rapes me of I will kill him”. He, Oscar and Miguel paid a visit to Alfredo’s house. After Alfredo opened the door Ayala placed a gun in his mouth and told him to be quiet. Alfredo’s wife together with their 3 sons were at the house aged 6, 4 and the baby son. Jorge confessed, being interviewed at the prison, that he was given orders to waste them all and that he thought only to do Alfredo, then, suddenly, while Jorge was talking with Alfredo’s wife, two shots where heard from one of the rooms: Miguel has shot Alfredo. Jorge approaches Miguel and while talking another spit of bullet were heard from an Uzi: Oscar shot 15 rounds in the wife’s body, allegedly while this tried to chop him. The wife was still dead alive with all the metal in her and Jorge took the silencer pistol and put her out of her misery with 2 rounds in the back of her head. Miguel was heading towards the children’s room for Griselda had promised him a bonus for the kids, when Jorge dissuaded him and they left the house.
Jorge’s next mission would be to kill all the crew of Paco Mejilla, who allegedly stole from Griselda, a full cargo of cocaine destined for Miami and finally reached New York. Jorge did 11 people. In less than 24 hours. He was supposed to have wasted a 12ve person,but he left him go.
Griselda was creating more and more enemies by the hours.
Pablo Mejilla, Paco’s father, was in Miami, at the Mall of the Americas, when seven gunman fired at him and killed him. Papo, Pablo’s son was in the car waiting for him and he was now also a target, that this time Jorge will try to eliminate with the help of 200 sticks of dynamite. The explosives tore the roof, all the neighbors car windows were blasted, but, once again,Jorge missed: … the house was empty.
Two weeks later, Jorge’s team found out that Paco Mejilla was to arrive to Miami airport. They decided to kill him at the airport with a bayonet inside the airport in return, Jorge would get half million dollars. Jorge rejected for this was a suicide mission, for the whole building was filled with cops (he explained). Griselda then decided that Miguelito would do it. Miguelito was the kind of person that would go on a mission to kill the president if the money was right.
As Paco Mejilla arrived, Miguelito approached him form behind and started to stab him with the bayonet 6 or 7 times, with no by standards reacting, Miguel dropped it and started to run. In moments the police had him surrounded and took him into custody.
Paco survived the stabbing, and that was the end of Mejilla-Griselda war.
A special police group was formed, the CENTAC, to fight cocaine violence while Reagan had just been elected. The president decided to flood the city streets with federal agents, customs officers, coast guards, policemen and not to save in resources.
Homestead military airport was at the service of fighting clandestine vessels and aircraft who tried to smuggler narcotics into Florida.
This represented the beginning of the end of the cocaine cowboys era. Murders decreased in 50% and Griselda was thinking on moving the whole thing to California. And she did, in 1984, she left Miami and started a new at California.In order to get the drugs, Griselda started to make friends with Marta Ochoa, a member of the Ochoa’s family. Her plan was to,after having requested drugs from Marta, kill her,so Griselda could accuse her of having taking her money. And so she did, and by that she put a price on her own head.
In the meantime, Max, a part of the local cocaine industry, felt that he had some heat, and next thing he sees is 40 guns were pointed in his head, that was the last time he was spotted. Jon Roberts had millions of dollars buried in his lawn, and after the Feds got Max, Jon wants to hide the greens, but nobody paid a visit to Jon.
On September the 28th, 1986, Jon, awaken, went to the house where they had the radio transmitter and the landing pad and saw one of their planes loaded with dope, landed in the field and though everything went on wheels as usual, and all of a sudden, from all directions, the Feds stormed, Jon thought he was back in Nam for a moment.
Later the agents would acknowledge that they didn’t expected to find also Jon in there and his made the job easier for them, to catch all the fish at one spot. But Micky won´t be an easy catch: he headed the swamp after he blowed one of the planes in flames.
Max, after being caught, rolled on all of his ex colleagues and started collaborating with the authorities. Without Max, the Feds would have never closed the case. The Feds and he DEA were not aware of anything during the 5 years of the gang trafficking with cocaine: they had no clue where the landing field was, or which high tech transmitters they were using, …
All the confiscating properties of the whole gang summed around 130 millions dollars.
Law enforcement dismantled the organization and as their members were being held in custody and prosecuted, all the businesses, night clubs that they frequented started to drying up, car dealerships as well, jewelry shops, real state values, etc,…Cocaine money actually built half the city of Miami.
Miami was in the mouth of everybody those day, at Time magazine, “Paradise Lost”, and there were as well two movies that really placed Miami on the center: “Scarface” of Al Pacino and ¨Miami Vice¨ tv series, both movies focused totally on the drug industry that flourished in Miami.
Mike and Jon spent a decade in jail. Jon would return to Florida on 2000, as a condition for his parole and Mike was released in 1999, after he was a fugitive for 6 years and served 7 at jail.
Rafa Cardona Salazar got killed in Medellin on 1987.
Max entered after his arrest in 85, the Federal Witness Protection Program: to this day he remains hiding. He reportedly has a $3 million on his head.
Rivi avoided the death row by testifying against his own boss, Griselda Blanco, and plead guilty on three murders and gave details on another 14 murders by Griselda´s organization.
So Griselda was in custody waiting for trial, when Rivi was involved in a phone sex scandal with secretaries at the State Attorney´s Office, that after humiliated, the state dropped Rivi as a witness against Griselda and offered her a plea bargain.
Griselda made a lot of enemies during this time, that resulted in the assassination of Uber and Osvaldo, her two sons, in Colombia. Griselda was released from jail on June 2004. The very same day she saw the outside world again, Rivi was stabbed in a Miami prison, he survived…coincidence?
Griselda was deported to Colombia…