Florida’s Foremost Drug Documentarian, Billy Corben, On His Latest ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ Series For Netflix

Billy Corben’s latest documentary, Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings Of Miami (the fourth installment of Cocaine Cowboys, for those keeping track) is framed around an opening local news segment from the ’80s about Seahawk Racing, a powerboat racing team run by Sal Magluta and Willy Falcón. The two happened to be prolific cocaine traffickers at the time, with numerous warrants out for their arrests under various aliases. The fact that they would willingly participate in a news segment about their boat team at the same time underlines the brazenness and panache with which they conducted their business.

Through movies like The U, the previous Cocaine Cowboyses, and Screwball, Corben has become the poet documentareate of South Florida criminality, arguably as famous as some of his subjects. His most recent film, 537 Votes, was something of a capstone to his career documenting “Florida Fuckery” (Billy’s words), building a cogent case that our current national malaise in large part owes its origins to the local politics of Miami in 1999 and 2000.

537 Votes was an invaluable and necessary watch, but also a bit of a downer, in some ways a primer on “why everything sucks” (answer: because Florida). Kings of Miami feels in many ways like Corben’s penance, another wild story of drugs and excess through which one can vicariously powerboat. I honestly wasn’t sure that the world needed another story of above-the-law druglords when I flipped it on, but I was quickly hooked. It got better and better as it went along and saved more wild twists for the epilogue sequence than most series have in their entire runs. A Real Housewives connection?!

Inasmuch as Kings Of Miami is a great popcorn watch, it’s not without relevant social content. It’s ostensibly about drug kingpins, but no one comes off smelling like a rose. The traffickers, the FBI, ICE, lawyers, and local politicos all come off varying degrees of predatory and corrupt. Don’t piss off the Feds, man, they’ll shoot your dog and throw your grandma in jail.

Rare for a director and even rarer for a documentary filmmaker, Billy Corben is, as always, a great interview. I never turn down a chance to talk to him.

Is that still the pandemic hair for you?

Still the pandemic hair, yeah. But luckily the pandemic ended in Florida last summer. So woo! We’re open for business, baby.

That’s right. Yeah, you guys are doing great now.

Yeah, you know what’s really open for business? The ICU, apparently. Un-fucking-believable.

Wasn’t there a Bill Maher where he was congratulating somebody in Florida about how well they’ve done COVID?

Yeah. The Governor. Ron DeathSantis as they call him. Just a pile of bodies now that he’s going to run for reelection standing on top of. Un-fucking-believable. Out there trying to be like, “Well, I’m not anti-vax.” He’s anti-mask though. Then he’s fucking selling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” gear to raise money for his reelection campaign. So there you have it.

Well, politics is merch now.

Wow. Yeah, listen, politics is the WWE. I think we talked about this on Screwball. It’s all performative. It’s all selling action figures and T-shirts and shit. Yeah.

Right. Okay, so the docuseries. I feel like at this point in your career, you’re not a real Miami criminal until Billy Corben has made a documentary about you. You must have guys jumping over themselves to tell you about all the crazy shit they did in the ’80s and ’90s. Do you find that? Do you find yourself having to separate bullshit from fact?

So Alfred Spellman, my producing partner, often jokes that when people get released from prison in Florida, their first call is to their mother and their second call is to Rakontur to make a documentary about them. I mean, especially now with the ubiquity of true crime content and this kind of golden era of documentary filmmaking that we’re in right now, there’s something kind of post-modern about criminals — some of them are already contemporaneously documenting their crimes for their inevitable capture, release, and documentary series. It feels that way. People coming to the table like, “But I got footage, bro.” It’s like, “You’re a criminal. Why do you have footage?” It’s probably why you got caught, convicted, and are in prison right now.

But yeah, no. While it’s easier to get access, the vetting is that much more important. The bullshit meter. There was this guy running around as Pablo Escobar’s son for a while who was not in fact Pablo Escobar’s son. Pablo Escobar does have a real son, but then there was this other kind of imposter running around, if I remember correctly. These days it’s that much more incumbent upon us to do our homework.

Right. Then how do you do that when you’re dealing with criminals and people who might be legitimately dangerous?

Uh… very carefully? That’s part of the reason I think for the most part that sometimes we discover, I guess, obscure criminals in the case of the first Cocaine Cowboys. Not a lot of those characters were well known or publicized per se, certainly not in several decades. This series, for example, this case was the biggest cocaine trafficking case in US history at the time. So well documented by the government, by the defense. In fact, when we first started this project, Alfred and I were interviewed for Ocean Drive Magazine. We talked about the Willy and Sal documentary being a passion project for us. Lo and behold, Sal Magluta has an Ocean Drive Magazine subscription in federal prison. There he was in his cell reading our interview in Ocean Drive Magazine, and I think someone in the series says that there may be six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but in Miami, there’s only one or two degrees from Willy and Sal for everybody.

So sure as shit, I hear from friends and family going, “Hey. Sal read your interview in Ocean Drive and wants to talk to you.” We became pen pals. Eventually, through the years, he sent me to his parents’ house. His mom made me cafecito, fed me pastelitos, and we sat there going through photo albums going back from Cuba all the way to Sal’s arrest in ’91 and scanning pictures and going through their personal archive of home movies and boat race videos. The next thing you know I’m in Sal’s giant private walk-in storage unit with 20 years of documents and videos and trial exhibits and photographs and audio tapes. That was really the treasure trove. That happened towards the end of the project. Sal just handed us the key, no pun intended, to the kingdom there.

Speaking of pictures, you reuse this one a few times where they’re up against the chain-link fence. What is Sal doing in that picture? Is he showing his ass to the camera?

No, they’re pretending to escape prison. They’re in a prison yard, and they’re pretending to climb over the fence. There is truth in sarcasm. So they’re not actually intending to escape, but I think in their hearts, they are. But yeah, they’re scaling the fence of a federal prison I believe.

On the flip side of the coin, you seem to get a certain amount of cooperation from the feds and from law enforcement. It would seem like it would be hard to make without that. Are there any promises you have to make in order to get that, or what does it require on your end to get their participation?

No, I think, listen, this case was a pretty big deal for them. Both the loss and the win. There’s a lot of ups and downs for the feds in this case. If you go to the FBI, there’s not a museum, but the FBI building in DC, there’s a tour and some displays and things for tourists to look at. The FBI in each state gets to pick a kind of seminal case that defines their achievements in each state. [In Florida] it is the Willy and Sal jury tampering case. Miguel Moya, the jury foreperson, that is the FBI’s crowning achievement in the state of Florida. This pursuit went on for quite a period of time, required a lot of man and woman power, and a lot of taxpayer dollars just to go after these two guys. Then what they called the satellite cases, you can see how many people and jurors and lawyers who were arrested and charged. There was a joke for a while in South Florida that Willy and Sal and the satellite cases financed the criminal defense bar in South Florida for 10 or 15 years because every attorney in town had a client on one case or another, a cooperating witness, a defendant, a co-conspirator, somebody.

In my head, I don’t have anything against lawyers. I agree with the principle that everybody deserves a competent defense, but I still was taken aback a little by the level of amorality that some of the defense attorneys seem to have in this. Where they’re like, “Hey, as long as the check clears…”

Well, listen, I think when you’re in that game, you see it as a game. When you spend day in and day out in the criminal justice system, it’s extremely exhausting. It can be very emotional. If you don’t find your way to some sort of detachment from it or become able to kind of compartmentalize, you can get real run down real quick. I mean, the consequences could be life and death or freedom or incarceration for their clients, but there’s only so involved you can get. These lawyers were really involved. Willy and Sal were arrested in ’91. They didn’t go to trial until ’95. So there was four years of just pretrial motions and hearings. They tried to go all the way to the Supreme Court on the search and seizure of the Miami Beach mansion that Sal was at where he had all those ledgers. Just every kilo and every dollar, Sal not only knew where it was, but had it written in a ledger book somewhere. So when the government stormed in and seized those materials, those defense attorneys fought that. They wanted to get that evidence excluded all the way to the US Supreme Court where they ultimately failed. This just went on.

You have to remember, especially in that era, you have to what they call members of the “white powder bar” is what they called them in Miami at the time. So you have to kind of take some of these things in stride. So I don’t think it was meant to be cavalier. I think they understood that it’s a game to some extent, and they’re on the other team from the prosecution.

For a while, it was respected as such. It was really during this case where the government really took the gloves off, and they started to actually target the attorneys and accuse them of being a part, not simply representing the organization but being like in-house counsel. At least two attorneys were indicted as a result of this case.

The eventual case, a lot of it came down to money laundering. Now with Bitcoin and shell companies and this entire secrecy apparatus, do you think it would be easier for that organization to launder money now?

Well, Miami’s a tech hub now, I don’t know if you’ve heard. But yeah, which is just the new hustle. It’s the new cocaine. Miami, since we have no indigenous industry, we kind of subsist from hustle to hustle down here. But do I think it would be easier? I think the money laundering was pretty easy back then. They owned banks. The Sunshine State Bank was a bank that they had helped open, Willy and Sal. Another deleted scene with some friends of theirs, like childhood buddies, I don’t want to say they owned the bank, but they effectively owned a bank. They had the run of the place, and this was a bank effectively opened for the purpose of drug money laundering. It was ultimately shut down by the government for that. So for a while it was not that challenging. I guess to your point, all the transactions were quite overt. There was a paper trail obviously of everything. Yeah, certainly I would think that would be much easier for them to launder money now in the crypto world. But I don’t know if the smuggling of the product would be quite as easy. Maybe that’s our next documentary, Crypto Cowboys.

So you’ve got your Seahawk Racing shirt on. Does powerboat racing exist without cocaine??

I think Jim DeFede said it, at least half of the world champions in that sport were drug smugglers. Marijuana and/or cocaine. It was such an expensive sport that unless you’re the Budweiser boat or the Benihana boat where you had a legit sponsor… Nobody had a job. Nobody had a sponsor. So where the hell was the money coming from? They’re spending upwards I think of they estimated a million dollars per race, that they would spend just on boats and crew and engines. Because you needed a backup engine in the event that one engine failed. It was an extremely expensive sport. Anything on the water is dangerous and expensive.

So no. You notice it’s not really so much a thing anymore, offshore powerboat racing. It was kind of like disco music. It existed in a time in which the drug that fueled it was king. So no, I think the answer to your question is no, I would argue. I think some people would be upset with me for agreeing with you, but… just like there’s no disco without cocaine, I think there’s probably no offshore powerboat racing without cocaine.

Do you see any other things that are obvious cultural ripple effects from the cocaine craze?

Well, yeah. Listen, now I think the nostalgic cycle is swinging background to disco. You listen to a lot of artists who were not alive when disco was a thing whose producers are very much borrowing those tempos and those beats and those bass lines from disco. I think music-wise certainly. I think fashion-wise as well. Every once in a while I get out in the world and see someone in a Members Only jacket.

Can you explain that hit list sort of thing that [Magluta’s lawyers] were able to publish in a magazine basically?

So the defense team was looking to gather information and evidence against the potential witnesses against Willy and Sal, most of whom were themselves criminals. Some convicted or admitted criminals because they had pled guilty in an effort to get a deal from the government, a reduced sentence in exchange for their cooperation against Willy and Sal. Flash forward to the trial, the cross-examinations of the cooperating witnesses by the defense team were blistering, absolutely devastating. It was because the defense knew more about them than the government knew about their own witnesses. This was because Willy and Sal spent $25 million on their defense in just the first trial in ’95 and ’96.

So they had private investigators. They had paralegals. They had associates, lead attorneys. They had evidence against the witnesses that the government just was shocked to learn about during the trial. In an effort to dig up that dirt, they had made a list which they turned into an ad that first went in Champion Magazine, which was a criminal defense attorney magazine. Then in Prison Life Magazine, which true to its name is distributed in prisons. Many of the men on this list were in fact in custody or in prison at the time. and if they weren’t in protective custody, you better rest assured they were immediately moved there after this ad came out, because while the defense saw this as a “research effort,” the US attorney’s office, the DOJ saw it very much as a hit list. In fact, witnesses against the boys started turning up dead very shortly thereafter.

Without the part where they started killing people and doing crazy things, I feel like there’s a natural desire to want there to be a good drug dealer who just makes some money and takes it and splits. Just takes a bunch of money and rides off into the sunset. Why can’t that happen? Is it greed or is there some logistics involved?

It’s not a happy ending, I mean, everybody ends up dead or in prison, including Taby [a Willy and Sal associate who was a fugitive for 20+ years]. I mean, can you imagine what it was like living for 27 years with your wife, your son, and your daughter who were barely single digits when they ran away and living like that, looking over your shoulder for 27 years? I spoke with his wife Gina Falcón after they were busted, and she looked so relieved, dude. He was like, “Let me do whatever I’m going to do.” I think they gave him seven years or whatever. I think it was a real weight honestly off their shoulders to finally get caught. So that’s the bottom line is you wind up dead or in prison.

There were some people who quit back in the day. They made some money. They’re weekend warriors, maybe did a little smuggling on the side, made a lot of money, bought some real estate, bought a car dealership maybe, luxury car dealership, and then got out of the game. Some of whom got out relatively unscathed. I think you just got to know when to quit. Back in the day, I’m just guesstimating here, but the average career in this industry would’ve been maybe five years before you get dead or arrested. These guys operated for 20 years, all the while getting arrested over and over and over again. It was a pretty unprecedented run.

They had enough money to afford planes and offshore accounts. You’d think one of them would’ve been like, “Hey, I’m going to move to the Philippines,” or whatever like the Q guys.

Listen, I keep thinking I’ll leave Miami too, but where the hell would I go? It becomes a part of your blood after a while. They could’ve gone anywhere. Let me tell you something funny: this is the kind of shit that’s deleted scenes in this documentary. That’s how big and crazy this story is. You remember there’s the attorney in ’89, Juan Acosta who gets murdered, and he was the lawyer who handled, not just for Willy and Sal but a lot of the local drug kingpins, offshore corporations and accounts. Mostly the money was in Panama. Their private banker in Panama who was listed as a treasurer on a lot of their corporations and their offshore accounts was the guy by the name of Guillermo Endara. So, totally in bed with these major cocaine traffickers. When the United States of America goes and arrests Noriega ostensibly for drug trafficking and allowing Panama to be a safe haven for drug trafficking and drug money laundering, the United States replaces Noriega with… Guillermo Endara. So the next president of Panama after Noriega that the United States ostensibly installs was Willy and Sal’s private banker and practically business partner.

‘Cocaine Cowboys: Kings Of Miami,’ is available now on Netflix. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.