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Miami Drug Wars of the 70s and 80s


Drug use and the resulting implications for the social, economic, and political wellbeing of the people is a subject that has raised controversies for decades. Countries like the United States of America have been plagued by drug crises and the fight against drugs is far from over. Researchers and policy-makers have constantly sought to examine the issue and develop an understanding of its roots and impacts to formulate effective strategies. However, the fact that substance abuse fuelled by a thriving underground economy is growing is an indication that the war is lost. While many observers see drugs as a major problem for society, one cannot fail to notice that some major cities in the United States have been built on drug money. Such an observation does not suggest, it should be noted, that people should start to acknowledge any positives from illicit drugs. As will be examined in this paper, even such sources of finances cause major economic problems for the country. This paper focuses on the drug wars of the 1970s and 1980s in Miami outlining their social, political, and economic impacts.

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The drug under consideration here will be cocaine, one of the most common illicit substances consumed in the United States. The historical background of cocaine will reveal how it all started and the factors that contributed to the crisis. Perhaps one of the best representations of the cocaine wars in Miami is that offered by the film Cocaine Cowboys by Corben. A documentary featuring pilots, hitmen, police officers, and Miami Herald reporters reveals an era in the history of Miami when banks were springing up everywhere with a policy of ‘no questions asked.’ These banks offered the right services for drug dealers and organized crime members. Most importantly, the already threatening problem of marijuana was replaced by the more lucrative cocaine imports from Latin America. The finances from drug dealing fuelled the banks and other legal investments in the city, which in economic terms is called money laundering. As will be shown later on in this paper, money laundering remains a problem for Miami and the consequences of drug abuse in the city extend beyond the economic problems.

Context and Historical Background

The historical background of the Miami drug wars of the 70s and 80s can be traced back to the development of the Mimi town itself during those years. One of the key points to note is that Miami had and still has close links with Latin America as evidenced by the many immigrants from the region. Cuban immigrants and others from Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Haiti, Salvador, and Nicaragua comprised over 85% of the Miami population in the 1980s (Sherrill). Much of the cocaine consumed in the state and the entire comes from Colombia, but the Spanish population in Miami was classified under the Anglos who also included Italians, Greeks, Jews, and any other European nationality. As explained in the film Cocaine Cowboys by Corben, the Colombian traffickers flocked Miami after the demand for cocaine rose and the environment for trafficking became conducive. The drug wars, however, can be traced to the 1979 shooting between the Colombian traffickers (Miami Herald). The term “cocaine cowboys” was used by a police officer on that scene and the term has since been normalized and popularly used in film and other narratives of the Miami drug wars.

The 1979 shooting was a result of drug criminals fighting for the wholesale market in Miami. It heralded an era of mob-style executions and the growing violence in the streets. The Medellin Cartel was responsible for such violence as it tried to consolidate control of Miami’s drug business. By the 1980s, the smuggling rings had grown to corporate sizes with billions of dollars now being transacted annually. Consider, for example, a $100 million drug seizure in 1982 in a Miami International Airport hangar (Miami Herald). Such seizure indicated the volumes of trade and forced the president to create a drug task force for South Florida. At the time, the Colombian drug lords had already amassed massive amounts of wealth that they used to protect and sustain their criminal empires. The 1985 seizure of more than $9 billion dwarfed that of 1982 and is perhaps one of the earliest indicators that the government was losing the war on drugs.

Tales of violence in Miami constantly hit the news headlines as more drug dealers became involved and as the fight for control intensified. The murder rates continued to grow, for example, 243 murders were reported in Dade County in 1978 and 320 in 1979. In 1980, the figure again rose to 515 and by August 1981, 380 murders had already been reported (Jaynes). However, the violence was not always the result of criminals fighting over control. In many cases, the violence was the result of a crime wave that came with the cocaine either in search of money to afford drugs or the outcomes of intoxication. Most importantly, the cocaine influx came with it a mentality among the residents that money and power could be obtained violently. According to Flock, cocaine made people do crazy deeds in the name of money and power. The resulting bloodlust that ensued could only be compared to that of a failed state.

Telling the history of Miami drug wars means mentioning some of the most notorious lords of the time, most of whose reputation has stood the test of time. Court proceedings in one of the killings associated with the drug dealings involving a gunman named Villega-Hernandez revealed the working of the drug lords. The trade was in the form of a drug conglomerate headed by Griselda Blanca who was based in Colombia. In Miami, several branches of the conglomerate operated independently and competitively and, despite working for the same organization, had intense and violent rivalries (Miami Herald Archives). At some point, Miami had become the drugs capital of the world. The film industry, according to Moore, has produced movies such as Sicario, El Chapo, Narcos, and The Infiltrator that all show the extent of violence that the drug trade carries. Alongside the Cocaine Cowboys, these films have attempted to express that drug money only fuels chaos and violence.

As mentioned earlier, the drug lords built an empire with their wealth some of which remains today. Pablo Escobar was the leader of the Medellin cartel that controlled over 80% of the global cocaine market in the 1980s (Macias). He had invested in Miami’s real estate the same as other drug lords. Such actions are the reason why many people believe that Miami is built on drug money. Even after his death, the drug wars are not completely over as any faction related or unrelated to his cartel continuously engages in violence with the hope to control Miami’s drug trade.

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The drug wars persisted largely because of the wealth and power that made law enforcement ineffective. In some cases, law enforcement was also involved in the drug wars as officers and legal teams were bribed. The Cocaine Cowboys operated a faction called “The Company” and they had a reputation for heavy spending and lavish living. Additionally, they were known to shell out high-powered legal teams and engaged in witness bribery among other actions that rendered law enforcement powerless. However, it is also important to notice that while most of the factions were violent, some like the Cocaine Cowboys remained non-violent operating like a ‘family business’ (Cullen). Such cases were exceptional and were perhaps the few who sought to legitimize drug dealing through money laundering. While such crimes may not have fuelled any fatalities, they ushered in another crime wave of money laundering that remains a huge problem for Miami.

In a nutshell, the history of the Miami drug wars is entangled with the history of the United States’ relationship with Cuba and other Latin American countries. The Cocaine Cowboys had their roots in Cuba and they may have been among the 125000 people that the Cuban government offloaded to Miami as part of Castro’s great revenge (Sherril). Among these people, many were not law-abiding citizens while a few were enterprising Cubans. Their enterprising nature was manifested by the fact that they arrived at Miami with no money, worked as dishwashers, saved their earning, and started businesses that became successful. Many, like the Cocaine Cowboys, however, sought to take advantage of the growing cocaine market. The emergence of drug cartels from Colombia, it can be speculated, may have shifted the power balance in the cocaine trade and Colombia became the source of the drug and home to many notorious drug lords.

Social, political, and Economic Impacts

Many of the impacts of the Miami drug wars of the 70s and 80s can be inferred from the historical records and background as detailed in the above section. The keyword is perhaps ‘wars’ indicating violence, bloodshed, and death associated with the cocaine trade. Wherever there is a drug crisis, war and violence become a common occurrence. Such sentiment has been expressed by Andreas who explains that many of the wars in the world’s history have been spearheaded by drugs (58). The examples given include the introduction of wine into France by Roman legions through an imperial conquest. Others include Britain going to war with China over opium, and the Colombian right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing insurgents using the cocaine trade to fund a war against each other. From these examples, therefore, one can confidently argue that drugs and war go hand in hand. Indeed, the fact that the cocaine wars in Miami started after the introduction of the drug should serve as another example of the drug-war relationship.

The first impact of the cocaine introduction in Miami is war and the resulting violence and death. From the historical records, the murder rates rose steadily through the years after the initial incidence of 1979. The figures are given above for the years 1978 to 1981, it should be noted, are from Dade County. The broader state of Florida could have experienced serious murder rates, even though Miami was known as the hotbed of criminal activity (Jaynes). The loss of lives is a serious social issue as a society marred by violence cannot progress. Murder and homicide are the greatest crimes that can be associated with drugs. The huge numbers of fatalities from assassinations and shootouts reflect a crime wave that can only be witnessed in a state beset by a drug crisis.

Crime is also associated with drugs and, similar to wars, they are violent. Many studies have examined the relationship between drugs and crime and the consensus has been that drugs fuel delinquency. However, many studies of drug-related offending concentrate on alcohol and smoking, and other common drugs such as marijuana. It can be expected, however, that a hard drug like cocaine will fuel crime the same way alcohol and marijuana do. Putting aside the drug wars involving traffickers versus traffickers, other violent crimes such as armed robbery by people seeking a means to afford the drugs could also be witnessed. According to Contreras and Hipp, serious crimes in the United States fell in the 1990s and the researchers could only explain the change using the declining drug activity (1). The bottom line is, therefore, that drug crisis like the Miami drug wars also tends to fuel other serious crimes.

Another social impact that should not be ignored is that on public health. Drug abuse in North America has been a major public health concern. According to Csete et al, North America has been the greatest consumer of illicit drugs, including narcotics and opioids. As such, the region also records the highest numbers of drug-related deaths and morbidity (1436). Illicit and prescription drug overdoses have been among the leading causes of fatalities associated with substance abuse. The cocaine crisis in Miami in the 70s and 80s can only be expected to show the same public health problems. The public health issues associated with cocaine can be observed even today. In 2016, for example, an average of 36 people who consumed cocaine dies every month (Lipscomb). Additionally, other health issues arising from drug use include the spread of diseases such as HIV and HCV (Csete 1441). Even though there are hardly any records of the public health issues during the Miami drug wars, current evidence of the relationship between drugs and health indicates a detrimental impact of cocaine on the population’s wellbeing.

The economic impacts of the drug crisis often range from deteriorating economic growth to huge government expenditures both in the fight against drugs and in mitigating the risks associated with the substances. As mentioned earlier, the Miami drug wars may have helped Miami grow into one of the most populous and developed cities in Florida. Consider, for example, that the drug traffickers invested in Miami’s real estate and other legitimate businesses. The luxurious Miami mansion built by Escobar serves as one of the best examples. A real estate boom means employment for the growing population, even though most of it was immigrants. Growing incomes mean growing entrepreneurship and the overall economic growth of the city and the state as a whole. As mentioned earlier, the Cubans arrived with no money but upon working for some years and saving enough money they started enterprises that became successful (Sherrill). Without the drug money, it is possible to argue that such growth may not have been possible.

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The real estate growth is perhaps the best example of how the cocaine crisis led to the growth of Miami. There are many underlying issues associated with the growth of that sector, much of which involved the cost of housing. According to Sherrill, the wages for labor were cheap probably because the immigrant population did not have much bargaining power. The fact that the wages were 40% lower than the national average could be the result of Miami having only an 8% unionized workforce as compared to the national level of 20%. Consequently, the housing prices were constantly low and declining throughout the era of the Miami drug wars. For example, a new home in Dade cost around $105511 in 1982 and $91000 in 1986. Similarly, Condo prices fell from $112604 to $75000 within the same period.

There are many ways to interpret the above data depending on whether one supports or opposes the hypothesis that the drug crisis in Miami had a positive impact on the housing market. Firstly, low housing prices can be associated with increased housing affordability thus eliminating homelessness. Additionally, the declining costs of shelter could allow the residents to invest their savings in other businesses. On the other hand, however, the falling housing prices could be an indicator of a looming financial and economic crisis. The article by Sherrill may be intended to show the negative side of the drug wars. For a town that needed investors for it to grow, the drug wars may have ruined the city’s reputation meaning it was constantly unable to attract investors and even residents. The falling prices were not necessarily a means of attracting people, but adapting to the degrading economic situation causes by the drug wars. Even the operations of the banks that had sprung in Miami, as explained in the Cocaine Cowboys film by Corben, could not survive Miami’s economic climate and only a few remained.

Drug money, it can be argued, causes more harm to the economy than benefits. Even though the drug lords could invest in real estate, much of their investments were in luxury homes that of Escobar (Macias). In essence, there is not much economic benefit that can be derived from such investments. Another example of luxurious investments is highlighted by Lauer who tells the story of Lopez Tardon (1225-26). The money launderer used illicit funds from the drug trade in Spain and the United States to purchase fancy cars, designer jewelry, expensive leather goods, and seaside condos. Such investments only benefit the drug lords and not the residents or the government through tax revenues.

Money laundering has been a major problem for Miami since the 1970s when the drug lords from Latin America made it their operational hub. The Cocaine Cowboys, during the 70s and 80s, poured billions of dollars into the local economy laundered through the real estate. While the examination of the real estate sector discussed earlier shows a positive upward trend, it can be seen that the main aim of the investments in the sector was to launder money. The funds generated from the cocaine trade had tainted everyone, including law enforcement, real estate, and banking (McPherson 168). The influx of money, it should be clarified, was not the reason for falling property prices as such an argument would contradict the law of economics. When there is more money, the prices of commodities tend to go up. In Miami, the influx of drug money caused the prices of property to go up. The result of such economic events is growing inflation and the negative consequences associated with it.

The laundering problem was compounded by the fact that many of the drug dealers were immigrants or foreign individuals. They drove the housing prices high beyond the affordability of the local people (McPherson 171). Any notion of an economic boom resulting from the cocaine trade can be considered a false reality. In other words, the drug lords came in and took over the city while the locals are left helpless. They may have had jobs from the construction industry and other businesses, but the wages were over 40% lower than the national average. The economic impacts of the Miami drug crises were, therefore, twofold; that is, reduced wages accompanied by growing prices of commodities. In such circumstances, the socio-economic well-being of the Miami locals could only be expected to deteriorate. Growing crime and drug use affect their productivity and could be another indicator of a worsening economic situation for Miami locals. The impacts of money laundering, as observed here, are hard to explain because while the flow of money is good for an economy the negative implications, in the long run, raise serious concerns.

The political impacts of the Miami drug wars and the related cocaine crisis are harder to explain considering that the government’s involvement always seemed to be reactive rather than proactive. With almost all government offices in Miami potentially tainted by the drug money, any political response from the state intended to curb the cocaine problem may have been absent. From the federal government, however, reactive efforts included the formation of a drug enforcement task force solely for South Florida (Miami Herald). Such efforts, however, did not seem to have a significant effect in disrupting the drug trade as evidenced by even larger busts being made with time.

One political issue that that should have been addressed during the Cocaine Cowboys era should have been the foreign relations with Latin America. The immigration policy at the time was not very clear and that could explain the influx of Latin Americans into Miami. The Cuban immigrants, according to Sherrill, had the greatest influence on the growth and development of Miami, as well as the drug crisis.

Another political issue that the government should have addressed better was drug control. Elaborate drug control policies and strategies were missing, but changes in the political climate started to change after the 1982 seizure of $ 100 million worth of cocaine (Miami Herald). However, the only visible responses included the formation of taskforces to investigate, arrest, and prosecute the drug dealers. Such a response meant that many drug traffickers were arrested and jailed while the key players were untouched. Cartel bosses were largely unaffected by the arrests and they could always replace those who got arrested.

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Lastly, the politics around money laundering have also been greatly influenced by the Miami drug wars, but largely through the development of policies aimed at reducing illicit practice. However, it should be noted that signs of success in such policies are not good and the war against money laundering faces the same fate as that again the drugs themselves. An explanation for such failures could be that money laundering did not become a matter of concern for the federal government until after the high-profile trials of drug smugglers and money launderers such as Lopez Tardon (McPherson 172). Another political criticism is that the federal government has performed poorly in regulating shell companies. Many of the drug lords and traffickers used such businesses to launder millions with businesses disguised as legitimate. A further examination of the failure of the political environment in handling the drug crisis would explain the fight against drugs has not been won.


The Miami drug wars of the 1970s and 1980s were an indication of the detrimental impacts that drugs can have on a country. This paper has presented the context and historical background of the Miami drug crisis and explored the social, economic, and political impacts of the cocaine boom in Miami. The crime wave that ensued after the introduction of cocaine led to many deaths. Public health issues were also rampant, including the spread of various diseases. Economically, commodity prices resulting from the influx of drug money meant that the local people were detrimentally affected. Politically, only reactive efforts could be observed with the government often coming in late to address the crisis.

Works Cited

Andreas, Peter. “Drugs and War: What Is the Relationship?” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 22, no. 1, 2019, pp. 57-73.

Cocaine Cowboys. Dir. Billy Corben. 2006.

Contreras, Christopher and John Hipp. “Drugs, Crime, Space, and Time: A Spatiotemporal Examination of Drug Activity and Crime.” Justice Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 2020, pp. 1-40.

Csete, Joanne, et al. “Public Health and International Drug Policy: Report of the Johns Hopkins – Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health.” Lancet, vol. 387, no. 10026, 2016, pp. 1457-1480.

Cullen, Terence. “How the Cocaine Cowboys built a drug empire that helped inspire ‘Miami Vice’.” New York Daily News, 2017, Web.

Flock, Elizabeth. “What it was really like to be in Miami during the crazy cocaine boom.”. PBS News Hour, 2017, Web.

Jaynes, Gregory. “Miami Crime Rises as Drugs Pour In.” The New York Times, 1981, Web.

Lauer, Christopher. “Belt and Suspenders: Two Key Changes to Reduce Money Laundering Through Residential Real Estate.” Case Western Reserve Law Review, vol. 70, no. 4 2020, pp. 1225-1260.

Lipscomb, Jessica. “Miami-Dade Cocaine and Heroin Deaths Are at a 15-Year High.” Miami New Times, 2017, Web.

Maicas, Amanda. “A luxurious Miami mansion built by the ‘The King of Cocaine’ is no more.” Business Insider, 2016, Web.

McPherson, Gary. “Floating on a Sea of Funny Money: An Analysis of Money Laundering Through Miami Real Estate and the Federal Government’s Attempt to Stop it.” University of Miami Business Law Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 2017, pp. 159-189.

Miami Herald Archives. “Bullets once flew at Dadeland Mall in a deadly shootout. The Cocaine Cowboys were here.” Miami Herald, 2019, Web.

Miami Herald. “Miami Drug Wars.” Flashback Miami, 2014, Web.

Moore, Paul. “How Miami became the drugs capital of the world. Cartels, gangsters, violence and drugs.” n.d. Joe,Web.

Sherril, Robert. “Can Miami Save Iself; A City Beset by Drugs and Violence.” The New York Times Magazine, 1987, Web.

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