Netflix’s “Cocaine Cowboys” And The Trouble With Narco Dramas

A new docuseries weaves outrageous details into a bingeable series, but it overlooks the darker sides of the drug trade. (Spoilers ahead.)

Before narco dramas became part of mainstream entertainment — with the ubiquitous Narcos and Hollywood blockbusters like Tom Cruise’s American Made — there was the cult cable hit Cocaine Cowboys.

The sensational 2006 documentary, created by Miami-based director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman, chronicled the South Florida underworld of feuding drug kingpins whose shootouts sparked panicked news coverage in the ’80s. The filmmakers were the first to get behind-the-scenes stories of former cartel members. Most famously, they allowed the hitman who worked with figures like Colombian trafficker “Godmother” Griselda Blanco to speak openly about the gruesome violence he had engaged in on their behalf.

That documentary’s mythologizing helped shape later books and movies about the Miami drug wars. The filmmakers’ own follow-up, 2008’s Cocaine Cowboys 2, further fleshed out Blanco’s story, and she later became the subject of a Lifetime biopic starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Another film, starring Jennifer Lopez, is forthcoming.) Their new docuseries, Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami, shifts its focus from the godmother of the cocaine trade onto its two yuppie-era playboys: Cuban-born friends, champion boat racers, and kingpins Augusto “Willy” Falcon and Salvador “Sal” Magluta, also known as Los Muchachos.

At the time of their arrest in the early ’90s, the duo were accused of smuggling over 75 tons of cocaine — valued at over $2 billion — into the US. Kings of Miami details the pair’s rise, fall, and imprisonment over the course of six episodes, covering the first-generation Cuban immigrant culture that influenced them, the involvement of drug enforcement agencies, and the resulting intrigue and betrayals.

The series’ multiple strands often threaten to unravel, but the sheer profusion of over-the-top details (not to mention the original theme song, in which Pitbull raps from the perspective of cocaine) makes the series stand out, and it will be gobbled up by fans of narco crime stories. Still, as in the original documentary, the storytelling often glamorizes or downplays the violence wrought by the men and emphasizes the splashy spoils of the drug trade at the expense of the people actually affected by the drug wars.

For their new series, the filmmakers didn’t have access to Falcon or Magluta themselves, so we get an outside view through their lieutenants and girlfriends. According to them, there was nothing remarkable about the early lives of the Miami High dropouts that would suggest a future as cocaine kingpins. Magluta was part of a hardworking Jewish Cuban family who owned a bakery; Falcon was from a similar background. (His early years are less sketched out because the information we get about him is from a distant relative.)

The two seemingly refused their immigrant parents’ work ethic when they started selling dime bags of cannabis as teenagers. Magluta’s girlfriend, Marilyn Bonachea, recalls that Falcon was an outgoing, animated brawler while Magluta was the brains of the pair, keeping detailed ledgers of their drug trade.

They hit their stride in the ’80s, after cannabis, which was heavier and more voluminous to transport, gave way to cocaine as Americans’ illicit drug of choice. A friend of Magluta’s family introduced the pair to his Colombian suppliers, and they built an operation that mimicked a corporate business right as demand for the drug was exploding. They cobbled together their own distribution network, hiring a pilot who used to make $3 an hour flying banner ads over Miami Beach and a speedboat racer who later supplied boats for the series Miami Vice. Soon, they were selling tens of millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine a month.

Pedro “Pegy” Rosello, a relative of Falcon’s who later married Real Housewives of Miami star Alexia Echevarria, was the designated “money counter,” and remembers breaking the counting machine while processing $5 million twice a week. He also recalled his mother stumbling across a $10 million stash of cash while cleaning, hinting at the amounts of money they were moving.

Kings of Miami is strongest as it lays out the eye-catching details of Magluta and Falcon’s rise. There is plenty of footage of the “boys” enjoying their spoils, from their boat racing antics (they became national champions) to mugging for the camera as they turned into local nightlife celebrities. Magluta and Falcon were flying their wives and girlfriends to tropical locales, gifting the women with $40,000 in cash to look the other way from their carousing. As a member of their circle puts it: “If you would have told us we were criminals, we would have laughed. We’re 20-year-old kids, we’re just having fun.”

The original Cocaine Cowboys presaged the streaming era in that it focused less on thematic storytelling and character development and leaned more on the shock appeal of the criminal exploits it depicted. In some ways, that approach still holds in The Kings of Miami.

Still, as with the rest of true crime’s new emphasis on criminal justice, the series weaves in something of a subtheme about how lax drug enforcement was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Local and federal authorities didn’t seem to be on the same page about the importance of drug busting (or at least that seemed the case with the white and light-skinned Latinx protagonists of this series).

There didn’t seem to be much of an effort to bring them to justice until later in their career; the duo were first arrested under an operation that wasn’t even targeting them. They got five years’ probation with a 14-month sentence, but their lawyers persuaded a judge to keep them out of prison for years while their appeal was pending. Magluta fled but was finally picked up after being spotted by a former Miami High classmate in law enforcement; he was barely in prison a day before being released, probably as the result of a bribe. The duo changed their names and moved to Los Angeles, but were arrested again.

Eventually, they were jointly accused of drug trafficking by the federal government. The series emphasizes that originally Magluta and Falcon didn’t resort to violence. But when they faced serious federal charges, things changed. They hired big shot lawyers, former attorneys for Manuel Noriega and William Kennedy Smith, who allegedly helped them take ads out in prison magazines to publicize the names of cooperating witnesses, effectively putting targets on their backs. Here, the series becomes something of a Russian doll, segueing into a story of jury bribery, before returning to drug enforcement finally catching up to Malguta and Falcon.

The filmmakers are savvy about the way that traffickers and drug enforcement both seemed to think of the drug wars as a kind of hyperdramatic Western; one prosecutor was so angry about the duo’s acquittal that he attacked a sex worker at a strip club and had to resign. By mentioning the way these masculine egos clash, the show purports to be in on the joke of characterizing drug wars as dick-measuring contests. But it's not as above these antics as it thinks. The series' focus on macho theatrics means that some of the subjects’ crimes — particularly those relating to violence against women — are skipped over.

If Lifetime-style true crime plays on women’s fears that their husbands will kill them, narco melodramas are mostly about men’s fantasies about violence and money, access to women, and bro honor codes. Kings of Miami is full of references to The Godfather, Scarface, and Pulp Fiction, something of a postmodern wink at the tropes of the mob crime genre.

But it rarely departs from those conventions. When women appear in Kings of Miami, it’s often only to provide colorful background for the men, even though the series would have benefited from their perspective. Magluta’s former girlfriend, Bonachea, for instance, is given lots of screentime, but she’s framed as a possibly lying “femme fatale,” even though she’s the most myth-puncturing figure in the film. She highlights, for instance, Magluta’s hypocrisy, how he was deeply religious, reading to her from the Bible, and how he believed that as long as he repented, he could still go to heaven — which, in his mind, made it possible to carry out crimes without seeming remorse.

Bonachea’s sangfroid is evident in one of the series’ most chilling lines. “In my heart, I believe Sal would never kill me. I don't think he could live with that,” she says, then adds: “I might be wrong. It might have occurred to him ... ” This lack of certainty is also characteristic of Kings of Miami. Without a closer view of the subjects, we’re only ever at arm’s length; we don’t really see the true effects of their violence. Rather, we witness the odd ways it is normalized by the people around them — like when Echevarria, Rosello’s wife, talks about loving “bad boys” and wanting to change them into “good boys.”

There’s also a glaring omission of context: Kings of Miami overlooks the stakes of the Reagan-era so-called war on drugs. A ridiculous Nancy Reagan and Clint Eastwood “Just Say No” ad is played for laughs, unintentionally highlighting the panic about the expanded consumption of drugs in middle-class America. The government’s increased policing over drug offenses became a big part of the growing prison industrial complex and the incarceration of Black and brown men. But the class and racial cleavages of drug enforcement aren’t even cursorily acknowledged.

Like most narco dramas, Kings of Miami loves outrageous details and deftly weaves them into a bingeable series of shocking twists. But the series’ blockbuster storytelling highlights the glamour and excess of the Miami drug trade, often losing sight of the bigger picture and the people who suffered the fallout. In that way, the series perhaps echoes the hollowness of its protagonists. It might also leave those watching feeling somewhat empty after the binge. ●

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