A pair of Latino cocaine dealers saunter into Crown Liquor Store inside a bustling Dadeland Mall, spew two other men in a non-stop barrage of gunfire and flee the scene, firing their machine guns every which way and leaving an ominous white truck in their wake.
But it wasn’t just the shooting that was so shocking about what came to be known as the Dadeland Massacre –it was the way in which it happened. It was broad daylight. There were people everywhere. The gunmen fired their machineguns as if they were ruffians in a Western. They didn’t seem to mind leaving a truckload of deadly weapons behind for police to find, and they didn’t bat an eye while opening fire on innocent civilians in the parking lot.
The Colombian cocaine traffickers had come to murder two rival dealers that day. Little did they know they’d be the ones to start the War on Drugs, or what many Miamians refer to today as the “Cocaine Cowboy” era.
Billy Corben grew up in Miami. He went to first grade here, had his first kiss here and saw his first dime bag here. Corben returned to his working-class neighborhood after school most days to new pastel-colored Porsches in his neighbors’ driveways. It seemed like everybody was adding a second story to their tiny, one-family homes and putting in swimming pools they’d probably never use.
Corben– only one year old when the Dadeland shooting happened– grew up alongside the city of Miami. The difference between the two? One was built on protein and veggies, the other on cocaine.
“Everybody had a little extra cash kicking around, and those people were not necessarily in the drug business,” said Corben, director of both Cocaine Cowboys documentaries. “But in Miami, you had high-level drug operators generating billions of dollars in illicit, tax-free revenue into the economy and keeping it all here –buying real estate, buying homes, buying condos, buying cars, buying jewelry.”
South Florida was the closest entry point into the country for South American smugglers. The late ’70s and early ’80s had marijuana and cocaine pouring into Miami ports like champagne at Liv Nightclub.
The Medellín Cartel, founded by Pablo Escobar and made famous by vicious drug lord Griselda Blanco, changed this game. Hailing from Colombia, the high-functioning cartel brought in, easily, $60 million in daily drug money. The cocaine industry would no longer warrant the title “industry” –it had become a bloodbath.
“It was a wild time,” said David Ovalle, a crime reporter with The Miami Herald. “I even remember people telling me that back in the ’80s, our old building Downtown overlooked Biscayne Bay, the editor-in-chief was able to look out and see bodies floating around, and you’d call the police,” Ovalle said.
Ovalle said that in the ’70s and ’80s there were more than 500 deaths related to the Drug War in Miami each year. In 1981 in particular, there were 621 murders in the city-gone-rogue. Why? The competition. Hitmen lurked about the city, hired by their South American drug lord-bosses, with intricate plans to murder important pawns in other cartels.
If you’re still not grasping what Miami looked like in these days, picture this: the rule of law meant almost nothing back then. Police dealt with so many drug-related crimes– especially murder– thatthey were desperate for help. They hired just about anyone, even drug dealers. Everyone wore a gun because it just wasn’t safe to go into the streets unarmed. Drug lords had so much money that the cops and government answered to them. Drug money was choking the banks. But worst of all, in the ’80s, people all over the world knew that Miami was the most dangerous place in the world.
Thirty years later, the Cocaine Cowboy era has left a nasty scar on the fabric of Miami. But, according to Corben, Miamians are obsessed with the idea of that era. They eat it up and spit it out, proudly. Even ex-hitmen, whether still in jail or living quietly off the remains of their illegal cash, will do anything to tell their stories.
“There’s never a good ending to any of these stories but, believe it or not, they are aspirational,” Corben said. “We like these stories of banditos and killers and outlaws. They are, in their own way, kind of twisted tales of the American dream by any means necessary. In a way, it’s like the appeal of this President. We like the idea that people will give the finger to the establishment and show them!”
Corben recalls trying to line-up ex-convicts to interview for his documentaries. Guys like Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, one of Griselda Blanco’s star hitmen, and even Miguel “
“He’s the guy who attempted to murder Papo Mejia [acompeting drug lord with Blanco] with a f***ingbayonet coming out of customs at Miami International Airport,” Corben said of “
The anarchy of these decades is as addicting to Miamians as the cocaine itself. And to say the cocaine culture is dead in Miami would be a lie. In October, The Miami Herald reported that the U.S. Coast Guard stopped three boats carrying a whopping 3,516 pounds of cocaine into Miami Beach.
According to CBS Miami, in November, 18.5 tons of cocaine tried its way into Port Everglades but was stopped by the Coast Guard, too. There is significantly more regulation nowadays, but no system is perfect.
“Instead of people driving cheesy Porsches and having pastel blazers like on Miami Vice, now it’s guys on Instagram, you know, living it up with their Bentleys,” Ovalle said. “The look has changed, but also a lot of the imagery that people want from the cocaine trade kind of remains the same.”
Cocaine still runs thick through the veins of Miamians, especially the partying youth of the city. University of Miami students
“If you told me my senior year of high school that I would be doing that [cocaine] in college, I’d freak out,” said John Doe, a sophomore at the University of Miami. “But it’s a big part of the culture here. Miami is such a big advocate for it.”
University of Miami students
“I don’t ever need it, but it’s one of those things where whenever we do it, we know we’re going to have a good time,” said Jane Doe, a sophomore at the University of Miami.
Ovalle said that the cocaine industry today is much less “overt” than it was back then. Drug dealers know that they cannot get away with the blatant violence and money laundering they paraded in the ’80s.
“Back then you’d have
The cocaine craze of the ’70s and ’80s will probably never pillage and burn the streets of Miami like it once, so
“When you take away the drugs and money, Cocaine Cowboys is about immigrants, children and gun violence,” Corben said. “And what are we talking about in America today but immigrants, children and gun violence?”
Corben’s theory rings a little too