Cocaine Cowboys: the story of the billionaires who controlled Miami

·6 min read

Before Breaking Bad, Narcos and all the other thrillers, telenovelas and docuseries about traffickers clogging up your Netflix queue, there was Cocaine Cowboys. Director Billy Corben’s lucid and sensational 2006 documentary about the Miami drug trade during the 80s became a cult classic and a foundational reference point for all the narco-content that came after.

The doc even spawned its own small franchise, with two sequels (2008’s Cocaine Cowboys 2 and 2014’s Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded) that dug deeper into the war stories of law enforcement, lawyers, journalists, smugglers and assassins. Now Corben and his producing partner Alfred Spellman are returning to the bottomless well for a new six-part docuseries arriving on Netflix.

Related: 'The war on drugs funded policing': behind a Netflix documentary about crack

Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami zeroes in on Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, or “Los Muchachos”, as the billionaire Cubans came to be known. They were dominant but unassuming figures in the Miami drug trade accused of importing 75 tons of cocaine into Miami. They didn’t have the violent reputation of someone like Griselda Blanco, who was featured prominently in the Cocaine Cowboys trilogy. Instead, Falcon and Magluta largely kept off law enforcement’s radar until they were arrested in 1991. But that wasn’t the end of their story. They continuously evaded convictions and sentencing for at least a decade because of how much influence they exerted over Miami’s business, political and legal institutions.

Falcon and Magluta were also a curious structuring absence in the original Cocaine Cowboys, leaving audiences from Miami who were familiar with the headlines at the time wondering why their story wasn’t being told. It wasn’t for lack of trying.

“The Kings of Miami is the fourth title in the franchise, but it’s the first story we wanted to tell,” Corben tells the Guardian. The director explains that the court cases that finally put Falcon and Magluta away were just wrapping up in the early aughts, and the peripheral players, some who were just getting out of prison or witness protection, were not yet ready to come forward in a documentary. “The wounds were too fresh. The story hadn’t ripened yet to the point where everybody had some hindsight and some distance and was ready to talk about it.”

Our conversation hops back and forth over the 15 years between their 2006 documentary and their new series, which covers the ground that Corben and Spellman couldn’t the first time out. The original Cocaine Cowboys became an epic mosaic depicting the Miami we know today as a city that was built brick-by-cocaine-brick. In it, Corben and Spellman present a thesis that Miami was the “only successful case study of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics”, because the benefits from a drug trade bringing in upwards of $7bn made its way to every facet of the community. “If you were a grocer, a jeweler, in real estate, sold wine or had a restaurant or a nightclub, you were touched by those narco dollars.”

If their 2006 documentary was about how “cocaine cowboys” built Miami’s real estate, the Netflix series reveals how Falcon and Magluta were the crooked joists holding up its halls of justice. The Kings of Miami plays like a courtroom drama that gets going at the point in the narrative when most movies and television shows about cartels end: with Falcon and Magluta getting busted. They’re subsequently tried and retried. But with every episode the wily kingpins slip away thanks to the people on their payroll. Lawyers, jail wardens, witnesses and jurors were all within reach for Falcon and Magluta, whose organization corrupted the entire criminal justice system while also keeping it afloat. “They often joke down here that Willy and Sal and the satellite cases helped to support the South Florida Criminal Defense Bar for 10, 15, 20 years,” says Corben.

Falcon and Magluta’s story was always going to be too big for a feature film. One of the benefits of Corben and Spellman not getting to tell it their first time around is that they have more room to explore the case as a series, which wasn’t really an option 15 years ago. “I think Ken Burns was the only person who could do anything like that,” says Corben, referring to the documentarian behind The Civil War and The National Parks. “But he invented his own genre. Nobody else was allowed to do that. That was his shtick.”

Corben credits 2015’s The Jinx and Making a Murderer with opening the true crime floodgates, making the current iteration of Cocaine Cowboys possible. He also says that the proliferation of the genre over recent years made it easier to acquire subjects, since nowadays people are far savvier about documentaries and more willing to tell their stories in front of a camera. “There’s a lot of folks in Miami, when they get released from prison, the first call is to their mother and their second call is to us,” says Corben. He adds that now the challenge is vetting all the people who come forward. “There are several people who have said they were Pablo Escobar’s son who might not be Pablo Escobar’s son.”

The Kings of Miami can also rely on considerable shorthand, given all the related content that has come out since the original Cocaine Cowboys. The series doesn’t dwell on exposition or delve deep into the logistics of the Los Muchachos operations. There’s a remarkable trust and confidence in the storytelling, which indicates that Falcon and Magluta were working with the Medellin cartel but resists the temptation of mentioning Escobar, its notorious leader.

But Corben stresses that they establish enough so that audiences don’t need to have seen prerequisites to follow Falcon and Magluta’s story, which stands on its own. This isn’t like a Marvel movie, Corben says, where you had to have seen two dozen previous movies to follow what’s going on. “As soon as I skip a Marvel movie, I’m like, ‘Oh, no! I’m not going to have any idea what’s happening.’ It’s like homework.”

Familiarity with the Cocaine Cowboys films and shows like Narcos only enhances the experience of The Kings of Miami. But so too does a familiarity with The Godfather, Scarface, The Untouchables and Miami Vice, which are often used to explain finer details from Falcon and Magluta’s operations. The Kings of Miami is cognizant of the relationship between its subjects and popular culture. These are, after all, figures who influenced and then in turn were influenced by Scarface and Miami Vice.

One of the pilots in the Los Muchachos operation who appears in The Kings of Miami, Ralph Linero, even ended up working on Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice movie. Meanwhile the wife of an informant, Alexia Echevarria, became a star on The Real Housewives of Miami before appearing in the new Cocaine Cowboys.

“It feels like a very meta postmodern world that we live in now,” says Corben, who adds that his famous subjects are often very critical and nitpicky about how movies and television portray their work. “It’s like reading Yelp reviews. When drug smugglers criticize Miami Vice, they’re just like, ‘Come on! We never did that! One star!’”

  • Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings Of Miami will be available on Netflix on 4 August

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