The film Cocaine Cowboys showcases the zenith of the international aspect of illicit drug trafficking, which funded and propelled Miami’s increasing affluence and status as murder capital of the United States. The interviews with drug traffickers, dealers, and assassins fashions the film into a shocking documentary of the extent of transnational involvement in cocaine smuggling, from Colombian cartels to General Noriega of Panama, as well as the widespread repercussions of expansive cocaine trafficking.
In the 1950s-60s, cocaine had a much smaller presence than marijuana or heroin in the United States, but the existing traffic belonged primarily to the Cubans, whose smuggling routes spread throughout the Caribbean basin after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Largely as a result of the diaspora of Cuban drug traffickers exiled after Castro’s revolution, “Miami became a second port for cocaine” (Gootenberg 152). The film reflects the role of Cubans as middlemen in the 1960s and early 1970s through interviews with smugglers and dealers, in which they describe their initial suppliers as Cuban. After 1973, however, the cocaine trade became the purview of the Colombians and was concentrated in the hands of cartels. The film discusses the cartelization of the drug at length by showcasing the hierarchy of the Medellin family’s control of the cocaine trade.
An increase in recreational use of cocaine in the 1970s, along with the cartelization of the drug trade, contributed to a level of extravagance for those within the ranks of the cartel at odds with the living standards and economic realities of the Colombian coca farmers. As Youngers notes, “for many of the region’s poor coca production has become a means of survival” (129). Cocaine traffic does not enrich everyone involved in the production equally; instead, a rather wide gulf erupts between the poor subsistence-level farmers and those higher in the ranks of the cartel. This is no more apparent than in the film’s depiction of the many luxuries purchased by the dealers and smugglers interviewed, including a puma, expensive cars, and helicopters. As the film also illustrates, the booming market of cocaine became entrenched in the fabric of Miami and funded much of its renaissance period as a city of increasing international celebrity.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the film, however, is its depiction of General Noriega’s cooperation with Colombian drug traffickers, as emphasized in “The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations” web page. Drug money was funneled into Panamanian accounts with Noriega’s explicit approval. Noriega’s complicity with cocaine traffic makes his later alliance with the Reagan administration especially puzzling given that administration’s ostensible disapproval of such illegal activities.
The pervasiveness of cocaine and cocaine money in Miami made the city rife with competition and violence. Eventually, as the film highlights, the city became the murder capital of the country, and provoked a widespread police response that effectively ended the boom days of the cocaine market. Miami in the early 1980s became emblematic of a larger crackdown on drugs affecting not only the United States, but South American countries as well. As Youngers notes, US intercession into Latin American nations in order to stamp out drug trafficking has produced deleterious consequences for local economies, democracies, and even human rights. The film reflects the increasing DEA and intergovernmental responses to illicit drugs that continue to inform international relations with Latin American countries today.