Sunday, December 9

Yipee Ki-Yay

A remarkable documentary is running on Showtime this month; Cocaine Cowboys. It’s the story of the Miami drug wars.

The producers did an excellent job mining old TV news footage and newspaper clips and marrying them with present-day interviews. Among those asked to reminisce were drug runners, drug sellers, drug-gang assassins, law officers, lawyers and two journalists.

One was Edna Buchanan, Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter for the Miami Herald who later morphed into a best-selling novelist. The other was my old friend Al Sunshine, for a long time a reporter with WTVJ, later a CNN Correspondent covering (among other things) the Space Shuttle, and for years now WFOR’s “Shame on You” consumer reporter. From my perspective, Edna was lucky to be in such good company.

The film details the second of the two things that made Miami what it is today. The first was—trust me on this—air conditioning, which turned South Florida from a sleepy, bug-infested backwater into a popular tourist destination and retirement community. The documentary focuses on the second—cocaine; smuggling drugs in from Columbia, which brought money and notoriety to the area starting in the 70s and the 80s.

I have a friend who says, “There are only three big cities in America: Boston, New York and San Francisco. Everything else is Pittsburgh.”

Think about it. Philadelphia is Pittsburgh…with history. Cleveland is Pittsburgh…with a lake. Detroit is Pittsburgh…without the hills. Chicago is Pittsburgh…writ large. Denver is Pittsburgh…a mile high. Seattle is Pittsburgh…under water. Los Angeles is…well, just what the hell is Los Angeles, anyway? Omaha, Minneapolis, even Las Vegas: give me a break. New Orleans—the old Nawlins—had charm and style, but it was never really a big city. So maybe everywhere else is Pittsburgh.

With one exception: friends, Miami ain’t Pittsburgh. Someone in the documentary says Miami is Casablanca. I’ve always thought of it as Singapore, or Bangkok, or Istanbul, or…you know, some “stateless” state, some crossroads for nomads and fugitives. It wouldn’t have surprised me a bit to be stopped by a cop and asked for my “letters of transit.” It’s also, to my way of thinking, a rootless society: no one there is from there. Oh, you can find native South Floridians; but most people are transplants. They could care less about voting for Mayor—they’re not from here, they have no stake in the society. On the positive side—forget all that talk about a “melting pot.” Miami is a bouillabaisse; the ingredients mix but still retain their own unique flavors: Anglo, Cuban, Black, Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan, Columbian, etc. I say again: it ain’t Pittsburgh.

I arrived in Miami in 1989, after the “Cocaine Wars” had died down a bit.

A bit. Miami is still the craziest news town I’ve ever seen; and remember, I’d been around! In every newsroom in America there’s a morning meeting to go over story ideas for the day: the news “budget.” You come out of the meeting with a pretty good idea of the shape of the day, certainly with an idea of the “big story,” your lead for the day. In my four years in Miami, NOT ONCE did the projected lead make it as the first item in the evening news. And sometimes, many times, the projected lead didn’t even make the broadcast! It had been eclipsed by other breaking news during the day, shoved deeper and deeper into the lineup until it just disappeared.

A sidebar: the Miami-Dade police department used to present an “Officer of the Month” award. We covered the ceremony every month, knowing it probably would be squeezed out of that night’s newscasts. “But,” someone at the morning meeting would say, “At least we’ll have his picture when he’s indicted.” It happened far too often. That was Miami. There was too much money to be made. Cocaine Cowboys makes the point that everyone has his price. I’d like to think that’s not true, but some otherwise respectable Miamians were making a lot of money simply by looking the other way while the drug lords fought it out on our streets. The film makes the point that after awhile drug-related killings became so commonplace that it took something special to make a murder newsworthy: a high body count, for example. God forgive us.

Another sidebar: newspaper columnist Dave Barry—sort of the Will Rogers of modern-day South Florida—used to pass out bumper stickers that read, “Miami: Thanks for Not Shooting!”

Cocaine Cowboys is a solid piece of journalism—and I don’t mean to take away from the producers’ achievement. But it’s easy to see “the big picture” from a vantage point 25 years down the road. Al and other journalists of the time were writing instant history, and trying to make sense of the senseless killings that had invaded a quiet backwater nestled between the ocean and the Everglades.

I don’t know if Al Sunshine invented the term “Cocaine Cowboys,” but he was among the first to use it and popularize it. It’s only fair that he’s a key narrator in this fascinating documentary.

Here’s the promo: Cocaine Cowboys is on Showtime this month; and you can catch it anytime on Showtime on Demand. It’s more than worth a look.

Attaboy, Al!