Anyone familiar with the story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel will know how the mass manufacturing and distribution of cocaine turned Colombia into a war zone, with top politicians and judges routinely assassinated, and gang wars spilling violence onto the streets on a daily basis. Billy Corben's documentary Cocaine Cowboys focuses on the effect the most fashionable drug of the 80s had on Miami, which was the main entry point for masses of imported cocaine. Soon enough, the city once seen as the holiday spot for retired old folks was turned into the richest place in the world, with luxury car dealerships and expensive jewellery shops popping up all over, and of course, lots and lots of banks. The sudden boom was all down to cocaine consumption, and this came with a heavy price.
Corben tells the story using a variety of interviews, news reports, archive footage and photographs, lending a voice to everyone from smugglers, enforcers, politicians and law enforcement. The most fascinating insight is given by pilots Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday, who decided to get into the drug trade early on, making an unfathomable fortune in the process. They offer entertaining anecdotes about their experiences, and were making so much money that they lived in little fear of getting caught, even buying their own airports to import the goods in complete secrecy. Roberts and Munday were just regular guys who never dreamed that they could ever become so wealthy, and made sure to enjoy the high-life while it lasted. The main threat came from the cartel itself, which was so powerful and far-reaching that one foot out of line and you were dead, often by way of horrific torture.
The film's final third focuses heavily on the 'Cocaine Wars' that became so out-of-hand and brazen that it led to military intervention. This segment is told through the recollections of the deceptively charming inmate Jorge 'Rivi' Ayala, a former hit-man for crime family matriarch Griselda Blanco - known as the 'Godmother' - a woman capable of unspeakable cruelty and brutality. If she didn't like your face, you were a goner, and often entire families, including young children, were wiped out in order to leave no witnesses. It's a mind-blowing tale of how one drug can have such a devastating effect on a country, and it's told in a fast-paced, almost coked-up fashion, with the clever use of subtle animation to make stills feel alive, and a wealth of shocking and revealing archive footage to paint a clear picture of a city in crisis. A 'Reloaded' edition was released in 2014, which adds over 30 minutes of footage and provides updates on some of the subjects. I've seen both, and the original, shorter version tells a much tighter story.