NOTo we know the Florida drug scene better than documentary filmmaker Billy Corben, who in three cocaine cowboys features, as well as crazy, his 2019 investigation into the Biogenesis scandal that embroiled Alex Rodriguez, told wild tales of narcotics madness in South Beach with intensity and good humor. The latest from the director, Cocaine Cowboys: Miami Kings, brings him back to familiar ground. True to form, the six-part Netflix docuseries (premiering August 4) is a bonkers saga of drugs, sex, murder and corruption, all tied to two speedboat racers who are ultimately responsible for the introduction into the United States of 75 tons of cocaine – valued at $2.1 billion – during the 1980s.
Corben’s gift as a filmmaker is that he knows how to happily revel in scumbag escapades (and capture the uninhibited energy of his Miami milieu) while simultaneously refraining from excusing their misdeeds. Filled with diagonal split screens and transitional wipes, pastel colors, music videos, pop songs, graphics and stock footage, his work strives to unfold like a cocaine high. The fact that Pitbull contributes the opening credits track for Cocaine Cowboys: Miami Kings— a typical gangster-glorifying number called “Blood Sport” — makes perfect sense, since Corben and Mr. Worldwide are loud, flashy, and unrepentant kindred spirits. Both are adept at exploiting and exploiting the public’s love of criminal brashness, even if their penchant for such behavior doesn’t go so far as to condone it.
Cocaine Cowboys: Miami Kings is the story of “Los Muchachos”, Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon, two Cuban immigrants and lifelong friends who, in the late 70s, started selling cocaine as a side business. They soon met Jorge Valdes, a local traffic kingpin, and were drawn into Operation Video Canary, a federal sting that jailed Sal and Willy for 14 months. Through endless appeals, however, they were released on bail and free to continue using drugs as usual, and when Jorge went to prison in 1980, he handed over his empire to Sal and Willy, who quickly utilized Jorge’s connections with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. to Colombia to become kingpins and live the high life, including as competitive speedboat champions with their Seahawk Racing team.
Sal and Willy’s maddening ride to top-dog status – and desire to maintain public profiles despite their criminal means of employment – is told with enthusiastic joviality by many of their amusingly nicknamed cohorts, including the pilot Ralph “Cabeza” Linero, brother-in-law Pedro “Pegy” Rosello, and the diminutive Juan “Recut” Barroso. Corben’s ability to get people to speak publicly about this crazy affair is second to none, as he also enlists Sal’s longtime girlfriend, Marilyn Bonachea (who soon functioned as his bagman and controlled his ledger ), his and Willy’s. various powerful (and morally dubious) defense attorneys and assistant US attorneys – led by Christopher Clark and Pat Sullivan – who sought, for years, to put the duo behind bars for their underworld operation. Aside from Sal and Willy themselves, as well as Willy’s brother, Gustavo “Taby” Falcon, who has been on the run for more than two decades, pretty much everyone who is candidly and continuously discussing in this docuseries.
These first-person narratives do much to reinforce the giddy, personal verve of Corben’s series, which only loses a bit of vigor in its final two episodes, thanks to a narrative that strays from the early thrills of Sal and Willy’s Contraband to their later attempts to evade prosecution and conviction. That said, there is rarely a time when Cocaine Cowboys: Miami Kings isn’t wildly entertaining, given that his subjects kept finding new ways to extricate themselves from what seemed like inescapable difficulties. Whether it’s Sal skipping bail in California and returning to Miami to continue piloting speedboats – much to the shock of a Los Angeles sheriff who later spotted him on ESPN – or their efforts to undermine a federal lawsuit , the pair prove fascinating real-life variations on Al Pacino’s Scarface.
Although we talk a lot about the non-violence of Sal and Willy, Cocaine Cowboys: Miami Kings eventually reveals the former’s murderous self-preservation instincts. Facing an infallible lawsuit against them, Sal and Willy had their lawyers publish (in legal and prison magazines!) a veritable “blacklist” of federal witnesses, many of whom were promptly murdered. Moreover, despite having their narcotics assets frozen, they have found a way to circumvent the law and use these illicit funds to pay for their expensive counsel. Realizing that was not enough to get them exonerated, they then bribed three jurors to swing the verdict in their favor – a scandal that forced prosecutors to conduct a subsequent investigation to indict the jurors on the spot and use them against Sal. and Willy.
“Facing an infallible lawsuit against them, Sal and Willy had their lawyers publish (in legal and prison magazines!) a veritable “blacklist” of federal witnesses, many of whom were promptly murdered.”
There are so many incredible twists in Sal and Willy’s forensic ordeal that it’s hard not to walk away Cocaine Cowboys: Miami Kings a certain desperation in the face of the incompetence of the American judicial system, particularly with regard to juries, which are apparently as malleable as they are weak. That brazen drug dealers like Sal and Willy could convince anyone of their innocence, regarding almost everything they were accused of doing, is bordering on unfathomable. Nonetheless, using an electrically edited mix of news segments, police surveillance footage and other archival material, Corben’s documentary strikes the right balance between exalting their daring exploits and painting a a compelling portrayal of their unquestionable guilt (and horror)—a have-a-two-way approach that turns many of its speakers’ self-justifications and doom-to-me comments into the height of hilarity.
Cocaine Cowboys: Miami KingsThe candid, unapologetic enjoyment of these individuals (and their astounding conduct) is as refreshing as its simultaneous acknowledgment that they all deserved what they got. Sal and Willy’s story ends like almost every other organized crime story. Even so, Corben delivers plenty of surprises along the way, including a jaw-dropping final bombshell about Pegy’s latest run-in with the upholding law – unlike Jorge’s post-prison reinvention as a self-help preacher. – another familiar, depressing truism: some people never learn.