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Monday, October 17, 2005

Miami in the Cocaine Era

The Miami New-Times, the local alternative weekly, has recently run a fascinating two-part retrospective on Miami's cocaine-frosted 1980's.

There's much of interest in both editions, but there are several particularly fascinating articles, particularly Carlos Suarez de Jesus's "Cocaine and Me: A Memoir", a reminiscence of his time hanging around the edge of the action at the notorious Mutiny Hotel, ground zero for Miami's coked-up decadence, and at the nearby clubs that made up the scene:

Honey, on SW 27th Avenue a few blocks south of U.S. 1 in the Grove, was always jumping and stayed as frosted as an Aspen ski slope, everyone brazenly tooting away. Barry White, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and Al Green kept the dance floor packed. People did lines on tables and shared a hit from their little coke bottles while waiting for drinks at the bar. Wherever you turned, someone offered you a spoonful of cariƱo (love) out of politeness. It was the new etiquette, and few declined. Mirrored disco balls, a blaring sound system, and kaleidoscopic lights made your head twirl.

In the bathrooms, men and women mingled, passing around joints. It was considered rude to smoke outside since the place could get raided if you lit up in the parking lot. If you didn't have blow, you could often score un gramito from industrious restroom attendants. But most of us were aware that if you sprung for some rounds at the bar, you could end up snorting for free.

It was common at such nightclubs in those days for a group of swaggering cocaine cowboys and their side chicks to walk in, flash wads of cash, order the bar closed for the rest of the night, and cover the tab for everyone inside. It was also common to see a loaded, hotheaded jerk whip out a pistol from under his jacket and yell to a rival dealer: "I'm going to plant you right here!" Cries of terror would clear out the joint faster than a raid.

On a slightly different tip, Rebecca Wakefield's "Awash in a Sea of Money", about the sheer volume of cash the cocaine industry injected into Miami in the 1980's, is also essential reading:

A Florida International University economist estimated in 1981 that Greater Miami's underground economic activity was worth $11 billion a year, about one-third of the area's total output. Most of that was probably drug-related, he surmised. In 1989 then-U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen told the New York Times that from 1986 to 1989, $220 million in cash was spent on cars in Miami. That compared to $24 million in Jacksonville and Tampa in the same period. As much as twenty percent of local real estate was being purchased in cash, the paper reported. This slowed down after bank-reporting laws were finally enforced. (In 1970 Congress passed regulations requiring banks to provide the Treasury Department with information about the depositor for cash transactions of $10,000 or more. A court challenge delayed implementation of the law by four years, and when it did take effect, it was rarely followed by banks or enforced by the government.)

Only when Miami's image began to suffer major damage, such as the infamous 1981 Time magazine cover story "Paradise Lost," did civic boosters, led by then-Knight Ridder CEO Alvah Chapman, begin to lobby for more federal law enforcement. Vice President George Bush's South Florida Task Force on drugs arrived in 1982. That same year Operation Greenback netted its first big local bank, though money laundering wasn't declared a federal crime until 1986.

In the meantime, an astounding amount of money flowed through Miami. "In 1980 we had twelve people depositing between $250 and $500 million a year [each] in the Miami banks," McDonald recounts. "In 1979 there was a $7 billion [cash] surplus from the Miami banks. Absolutely unconscionable levels of money were pouring in here."

The rest of the articles are well worth reading, too, and you might be interested, as well, in my review of We Own This Game: A Season In The Adult World Of Youth Football, about the strange world of youth (American) football leagues in South Florida's black community.

Update, October 17th, 2005 6:34 pm: As Scott points out in the comments, I would be seriously remiss in not mentioning the Miami cocaine age's impact on the wider culture, from video games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (great fun, but why did the Haitians all have Jamaican accents? Maybe I'm too pedantic for my own good) to Miami Bass music (which later morphed into Rio's baile funk) to the pastel sport-coated glory of Miami Vice to Al Pacino's scenery-chewing epic Scarface. Phew!

|| RPH || 12:05 PM || |