Wednesday, November 01, 2006
A History of Violence
"Beyond the ties of kinship lurks the threat of death, and revenge killings among the cocaine traders certainly contribute to South Florida's crime rate. Drug shootouts are becoming a frequent sight in certain parts of Miami. At a busy intersection in Coral Gables last month, for example, a Mercedes Benz was suddenly surrounded and its 30-year-old Colombian driver killed in a burst of machine-gun fire."
-- Time Magazine, November 23rd, 1981
"Cocaine is a hell of a drug."
-- Rick James
Miami is a foreign land.
Strangely, this statement holds true whether you're a tourist or a resident. For the uninitiated, the culture shock of being in an American city which is so only by virtue of its accidental geography can be a bit overwhelming. In reality, it's a place where a majority of the population speaks Spanish -- simply because necessity has never dictated it do otherwise -- and where the rules which govern most residents of the United States can seemingly be bent or broken for the right price or political favor. For even the longtime resident meanwhile, the perpetually morphing landscape -- and the transient nature of those who are drawn to an environment which fosters it -- means that it's entirely possible to wake up in a city that's wholly unrecognizable from the one you went to sleep in the night before. This creates an almost constant state of unease and gives the city an undeniable undercurrent of eerie malevolence -- as if someone were constantly and surreptitiously rearranging the furniture in a room that was unfamiliar to begin with.
True story: a couple of years ago, I was back in my hometown, putting it to the use for which the chamber of commerce believes it was intended: a vacation destination. it was a typically hot, humid afternoon and being that I, like all vacationers, was staying on South Beach, I decided to leave the air conditioning and take a walk over to Lincoln Road's Van Dyke Cafe for a bite to eat. I had gotten maybe a half-block from where I was staying when something on the sidewalk in front of me caught my eye. I bent down and picked it up -- turned it over -- held it in my hand. I'm sure I shook my head and that my face registered shock and recognition at what I'd just found.
It was a small plastic zip-lock envelope -- a flat baggie whose contents were perfectly visible. I had seen enough small plastic baggies in my time to know exactly what was likely inside this one; still, I opened it up and gave it a light sniff just to make sure. When it comes to crack cocaine, I've always taken the good advice of Whitney Houston -- crack is wack; but I had no doubt that what I was holding in my hand was indeed that.
I continued to shake my head -- laughed a little -- then tossed the baggie aside and continued on my way.
In my head, one thing repeated over and over: "Miami: Where the Streets are Paved with Drugs."
Amazingly, that small moment was one of my very rare experiences with cocaine of any sort in South Florida; despite my sterling record as a hardcore addict -- it ironically took leaving my home to find what had always been within arm's reach. This is not to say that I was unaware of the prevalence of that particular drug in my hometown throughout my life; there was a time when it reached into the life of every man, woman and child in South Florida. No matter who you were, you understood that there were cocaine, cocaine traffickers, cocaine dealers, and cocaine money all around you.
The bodies piling up in the street were a testament to it.
If you were alive during that time, and lived elsewhere in the country, you were at least tangentially aware of what was going on in Miami during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In November of 1981, Time Magazine -- a publication whose cover had been devoted to the civil war in Beirut no fewer than three times that same year -- proclaimed South Florida a "Paradise Lost," and through words and nightmarish images, conveyed the unmistakable truth about life in my hometown: it was a war-zone on U.S. soil. The battleground was the street. The soldiers were known as the "Cocaine Cowboys." The victims were the innocent people unlucky enough to call South Florida home during that tumultuous period.
By the time Scarface and Miami Vice came along to glamorize Miami's drug trade -- and the bloodshed that went hand-in-hand with it -- the body count was unimaginable; the level of violence was simply staggering. As with all of the best stories that surface -- like dead bodies in canals -- from the murky depths of South Florida, truth is stranger than fiction. It's this fact which makes the new documentary Cocaine Cowboys so hypnotically engrossing and hideously effective. The film chronicles the reality of the early days of cocaine trafficking in the United States, when vicious warring factions fought a bloody battle for control of the movement, distribution and sale of the most expensive and desired crop in the world. Americans wanted it; Colombians and Cubans wanted to provide it, and -- with South Florida as their trade nexus -- would kill anyone who got in their way. The key word here is anyone; unlike the fantasy which movie-goers before, or wanna-be thugs since, have concocted to keep the brutal truth at a comfortable distance -- namely that there's a certain level of moral ambiguity because, well, gangsters really only kill other gangsters -- the Cocaine Cowboys killed innocents almost daily. Armed with the ubiquitous Ingram MAC 10 sub-machine gun, a weapon with too short a barrel to be accurate and too high a firing rate to be useful for anything but a single blast of deadly gunfire, the Cowboys -- whose motto seemed to be "Leave no witnesses" -- regularly killed not only their targets, but any man, woman or child who happened to be nearby. There were shootouts on the highways, between moving cars. There was gunfire in the most exclusive of neighborhoods.
The documentary by South Florida natives Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman has an astonishing level of access to many of the major players (the ones still alive) that turned my hometown into a place where my father worried about going to work, and my mother worried about allowing her young son to leave her side. At the time, my father was transitioning from Metro-Dade cop, to investigative reporter at WCKT TV; a situation which, when it came to being close to the violence, was like going from bad to slightly-less-bad. Many of the reporters and anchors I grew up sitting in front of the television watching are featured in the film -- a few I even went on to work with myself years later. It was their persistence in uncovering the truth despite the constant threat of reprisal, and the non-stop work of much of the Miami and Dade County police forces which finally slowed the bloodshed to a trickle. During the height of that bloodshed however, it seemed like nothing could stop it.
Cocaine Cowboys illustrates, in vivid color, the lengths that the most powerful traffickers of that time -- one, a Colombian woman named Griselda Blanco, known as "The Godmother," the pioneer of the Medellin Cartel in America and a familiar face on South Florida's nightly news -- would go to, to keep the cocaine flowing and plentiful. In addition to the wholesale murder and dismemberment of her enemies, Blanco at one point pulled off a smuggling stunt which was so impressive in both its creativity and irony as to be almost admirable. During the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial celebration -- when much of America was joyously marking two-hundred years of lawful independence -- several countries from around the world dispatched a colorful parade of tall ships to travel up the east coast of the United States. Colombia's official contribution to this armada was a ship called "The Gloria," which -- unknown to the D.E.A. -- was packed with one-thousand kilos of Griselda Blanco's Medellin cocaine.
Street value: forty-million dollars.
This is a woman who named one of her sons Michael Corleone. This is also a woman who ordered armed men to walk into a store in the Dadeland Mall -- which was, and still is, one of the busiest shopping centers in Miami -- and spray machine-gun fire, killing four people; and a woman who ordered her brutal enforcer, Rivi Ayala (who incredibly, is interviewed for the film) to kill everyone inside a townhouse in quiet, suburban Kendall, including the maid and the gardener.
This is what South Florida awoke to, every morning of every day; it was a situation exacerbated by the influx of 125,000 Cuban refugees and a race riot that left eighteen people dead and a good portion of the city in ashes -- both of which happened in the hot summer of 1980.
This is where I grew up.
Over time, the insanity ebbed and tensions calmed. Hollywood arrived and turned the brutality which had so scarred the city's streets and collective psyche into movies and television. When Scarface premiered, there were the white limos of the new generation of opulent drug dealer lining the street in front of the theater; when Miami Vice announced its plan to glamorize the chaos, the chamber of commerce protested the prospect of yet another very public black eye.
The drugs however, never went away -- only the constant drug violence.
The reason for that is simple: the Medellin Cartel rose to prominence and the trade routes were worked out so that an uneasy relative peace could be maintained, mostly because everyone realized that there was enough demand in America to keep everyone very rich and very happy. The birth pangs were over.
People will always want drugs. Period. And as long as that's true, nothing in the world -- no public service campaign, threat of jail-time, or amount of enforcement at our borders -- will stop dealers, traffickers and killers from making sure the people get what they want.
The "War on Drugs" is the ultimate misnomer. It's over; it was lost from the very beginning.
This is coming from someone who was raised on the front-lines -- a place where the streets are still paved with drugs.