- Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman talked to drug dealers and hitmen to make “Cocaine Cowboys.”
- When criminals get out of prison, they want to tell their stories to Corben and Spellman.
- The latest story in the franchise, “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami,” hits Netflix Wednesday.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Born and bred in Miami, Florida, director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman grew up knowing a simple fact: Their city has been, and will always be, a sunny place for shady people.
Whether it’s the refuge for retired mafia kingpins of the past, or the stomping grounds of infamous figures like O.J. Simpson and the late Jeffrey Epstein, The Magic City has never been able to shake its notorious reputation.
For Corben and Spellman, memories of being kids in Miami include racing home after coming upon a massive drug bust and suddenly realizing all their neighbors were driving around in fancy cars, had big boats, or were building additions on their houses – all while the rest of the country was going through a recession in the ’80s.
And then there was “Miami Vice.”
Spellman told Insider in a 2017 interview that growing up in the city, “the big thing was finding, in town, where ‘Miami Vice’ was shooting.”
“They were always just shooting the other day near your friend’s house, that was the talk. It was a huge thing in elementary school,” he recalled.
So because of all that, when Corben and Spellman (who’ve known each other since the 9th grade) grew up and decided to get into making movies through their production company Rakontur, they didn’t set up camp in Los Angeles or New York City.
They stayed put and decided to tell Miami’s taboo stories.
Their documentary ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ is the real-life ‘Scarface’ movie
Miami was the entry point for cocaine moving into the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It made the people who were trafficking it extremely rich, but it also made Miami, in that time, the most violent place in the country. The Colombian and Cuban drug cartels set up hits almost on a daily basis around the city.
It was a story Corben and Spellman felt had been glamorized in movies and TV, but never told in a realistic way the documentary format would allow. They planned to do that with their first film, “Cocaine Cowboys” – to tell the story through the firsthand accounts of the people who were actually there. And not just on the law enforcement side, but within the underworld as well.
But there was a problem. Corben and Spellman had zero connections in the city’s drug world of that era. However, there’s another simple fact about Miami: “You are basically two degrees of separation away,” Corben told Insider. “You’ll be at a bar and end up sitting next to a former smuggler.”
And that’s what happened to Corben’s cousin on a sunny Miami day in 2003. While Corben and Spellman were beginning their research on the movie, Corben got a call.
“My cousin called me and he said, ‘Do you know who Jon Roberts is?’ And I’m like ‘No, but let me ask the office.’ And Alfred yells out, ‘Yes!'” Corben said.
In his research, Spellman had come across the book “The Man Who Made It Snow.” Roberts is featured in the book, as a former New York City club owner who moved down to Miami to deal marijuana and ended up being one of the major players dealing cocaine for the Medellín Cartel, the powerful Colombian drug cartel founded and led by the infamous Pablo Escobar.
“It turns out Billy’s cousin met him at a pool and Jon wanted to know if we wanted to do lunch and meet,” Spellman said.
Up until this point, Corben and Spellman had hit closed doors whenever it came to talking to the people behind the cocaine that flooded into Miami in the 1980s. By the early 2000s, “Scarface” was a bonafide classic constantly referenced on TV shows and in rap songs, but for people living in southern Florida, the topic was still a sensitive subject.”In Miami, you didn’t talk about cocaine, it’s just an era that had never been talked about,” Spellman said.
“My grandfather, who was a real-estate developer in Miami Beach and South Florida, he was appalled we were doing the movie,” Corben said.
But after a sit down with Roberts, in which they explained to him that the movie would not feature a narrator, or have an agenda, and instead would be focused on the first-person accounts, the former drug trafficker was on board. And Roberts’ partner, Mickey Munday, a modern-day pirate who was in charge of smuggling the drugs into Miami through air and sea, quickly followed suit.
Then, the filmmakers went a step further – they tried to talk to the hitmen.
Getting a notorious hitman on camera led to some of the most compelling footage in ‘Cocaine Cowboys’
Landing someone who would go on camera and speak about the murders they committed was obviously a huge challenge. In most instances, the hitmen were in prison for a single murder, so the person could only speak on what they had been convicted of. Corben and Spellman would want to talk to someone who could speak about a wide range of criminal activity.
With the help of a homicide detective, Corben and Spellman reached out to three hitmen serving prison sentences. One was a man convicted for the murder of Barry Seal, the drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel who Tom Cruise played in the 2017 movie “American Made.” They also reached out to Miguel Perez, who is featured in “Cocaine Cowboys” as a hitman who once killed a target at an airport in broad daylight with a bayonet.
They didn’t get either on camera, but they struck gold with Jorge “Rivi” Ayala.
An enforcer for drug lord Griselda Blanco, aka “The Godmother of Cocaine,” Ayala was unique to the other hitmen the filmmakers reached out to. Why? Because Ayala had turned on Blanco and cooperated with authorities. Instead of getting the death penalty, he had immunity and could speak about over 20 homicides instead of just the one he was convicted on.
For five to six hours a day, for three visits, Corben and Spellman, along with a film crew, visited Ayala. And what they got from the interviews is some of the most compelling and memorable footage of “Cocaine Cowboys.” Ayala held nothing back as he talked about the people he killed and how insane his boss, The Godmother, was.
“Cocaine Cowboys” premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and was later bought by Magnolia Pictures. Though its theatrical release wasn’t that impressive, the movie would later gain a loyal following on the bootleg market and quickly became a popular title in the hip-hop world.
The movie has grown in popularity in the years since its release, partly thanks to it constantly showing up on Netflix.
Talking to the hitman led to the making of ‘Cocaine Cowboys 2’
Corben and Spellman realized they possessed a tool that the former gangsters desperately needed to get back on their feet after years in prison: notoriety.
“Most people coming out of prison don’t have anything,” Corben said. “It’s life reset. You’re not helpless, but you have no income, you have no savings, some people don’t have any support system when they come out because people have disowned them. So you come out and all you have is your stories. I don’t want to call it your currency, but that’s what you have.”
“We say, ‘When you get out of prison the first call you make is to your mother and the second is to Rakontur,'” Spellman added, referencing his and Corben’s production company.
That’s what led to the making “Cocaine Cowboys 2.”
Released in 2008, the follow-up delved deeper into the reign of Blanco, almost a decade before Hollywood took on a dramatized version of the Blanco story in the 2017 Lifetime movie “Cocaine Godmother” with Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead role.
The sequel was made because the main subject of the movie, Charles Cosby, had seen that the promotional material for the first “Cocaine Cowboys” featured a photo of him and Blanco. Cosby reached out to Spellman to get the photo, which led to the two talking and eventually deciding to do “Cowboys 2.”
While Corben and Spellman said they have never paid for an interview, they do not take their subjects’ life rights, which means the people they interview are free to use the notoriety they get from the movie to try and land a book or movie deal.
Thanks to the success of “Cocaine Cowboys,” both Roberts and Munday did just that – though Munday has since been imprisoned once again after a federal jury found him guilty on auto fraud-conspiracy charges and sentenced him to 12 years in prison in 2018.
Netflix’s ‘Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami’ features speedboat champs who were the biggest drug trafficers in the 1980s
This time, Corben and Spellman are going the docuseries route to tell the latest chapter in their “Cocaine Cowboys” saga, which focuses on the speedboat-riding, drug-trafficking tale of Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon.
Launching Wednesday on Netflix, “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami” is a thrilling and darkly funny six-episode journey into the heart of a Miami drug-running family.
The new series tracks the rise and fall of childhood friends Magluta and Falcon, starting with the two crafting a multibillion-dollar drug empire and ending with the authorities indicting them in one of the largest drug cases in US history after the duo were accused of smuggling over 75 tons of cocaine into the US during the 1980s.
Corben and Spellman elevate their storytelling by getting many of the major players in this crime family on camera to tell their stories firsthand.
Longtime fans of the “Cocaine Cowboys” franchise will recognize other figures mentioned in “The Kings of Miami” as the primary subjects of the filmmakers’ past documentaries. And for newbies, it’s time to buckle up and prepare for fast-paced storytelling that is as much an obsessive deep dive into the subject matter as it is wildly entertaining.
Corben believes what has made their unlikely franchise so successful over the years (spawning several films, the new Netflix docuseries, and even a stage play they were developing in 2019) is that they are completely honest with their subjects. They don’t have fixers or field producers trying to track people down and convince them to be on camera, as other movies and TV shows do. It’s just Corben and Spellman building the relationships.
“I don’t even know what a fixer is,” Corben said with a laugh.
And they are also meticulous in the edit room, working with their longtime editor David Cypkin to make sure nothing a subject says on screen is taken out of context. To date, the filmmakers say no one featured in one of their movies has ever said they were depicted unfairly.
“You’re dealing with people who would be very upset if we weren’t truthful,” Spellman said.