Because Florida 2

Written by
Christian Niedan

Rakontur’s stories of shady people in sunny places


Presidential Yacht and pot bales


Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja begins with a Rakontur-style definition slate, which describes the film’s title as, “noun, slang term for bales of marijuana thrown overboard or out of airplanes in South Florida in the 1970s and 1980s.”

The opening shot finds the camera slowly moving across a sleepy seaside marina, stopping on a pile of square burlap sacks of marijuana. Cut to waves on a beach, pushing one of those sacks up onto the sand. Next, a shot of Miami’s downtown skyline, then a pan-down to more sacks laying on the grassy shore of a nearby island. Similar shots follow, with sacks in a sandy mangrove, a shining stone seawall, ocean-side picnic grounds, floating around an estuary, before finishing on a shot of the film title (built of burlap letters, of course) sitting on a sunset-kissed beachscape.

Overlaying all of this is the southern country-style singing of Raiford Starke, telling the story of the benefits of Florida’s maritime marijuana trade for the fishermen involved. The song is “Square Grouper,” with music and lyrics by the film’s director, Billy Corben

Pushin’ off outta Dinner Key,
Biscayne Bay, then out to sea…
We did not forget,
Lord Calvert and cigarettes.
Cast the lines, anglin’ for some snook,
Then I feel a tug on the hook.
So I lean on back,
And pull up a burlap sack…
Cuz we got
Square Grouper on the line
And we’ll have everybody feelin’ fine.
If we can’t wholesale we’ll nickel and dime,
Cuz we go Square Grouper fishin’ all the time.
Rendezvous with the mothership,
Loading up with this Jamaican shit…
All stems, seeds and mold,
Next week, Santa Marta Gold.
Get the market price in High Times,
Countin’ cash, toss the 10s and 5s.
Buy a brand new boat,
Stock up on whores and coke.
Cuz we got
Square Grouper on the line
And we’ll have everybody feelin’ fine.
If we can’t wholesale we’ll nickel and dime,
And we go Square Grouper fishin’ all the time.
Gettin’ chased by marine patrol,
Grab the wheel, I almost lose control.
Ain’t goin’ back to jail, oh help me lord!
We got to dump these bales overboard!
Now you’ll find
Square Grouper on the line.
And you’ll have everybody feelin’ fine.
If you can’t wholesale, you’ll nickel and dime,
Cuz we go Square Grouper fishin’ all the time.
Yeah we go fishin’ for square grouper… All the time.
alternate “clean” 2nd verse:
We’ve announced our intentions
For Guajira connections.
Hope to get the call,
To pick up a bigger haul.

When the camera pulls out from the burlap title letters, it’s revealed that the scene is actually a paper photograph set inside a book-style album. The page is then turned to reveal the first picture-style shot of the film’s opening part, dealing with the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. The economic clout that the sect achieved in Jamaica is the topic of a vintage TV news report that Corben intercuts with his own interviews with Coptics, including Brother Butch and Brother Gary.


Coptic Church in Jamaica.

Brother Butch: “Within a matter of a few years, we had Coptic Heights in Jamaica with vast lands planted out.”
Brother Gary: “There was a thousand acres of farmland, houses, and it was all centered around the church.”
TV Reporter: “In Jamaica, the Zion Coptic Church is more than just a religious sect. It is an economic force in a poor underdeveloped country. Two years ago, this was wilderness. The Coptics brought in electricity, constructed an irrigation system, and built roads. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people on the east end of the island depend on the Coptics for their livelihood. The church already is reported to have more than $3 million invested here.”
Brother Gary: “We established a trucking line, where we trucked the food all over the island. We established supermarkets, where we sold our own food. We established Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, where we had ships bringing containers from island to island as a business. The Coptic farms was the biggest employer in Jamaica at the time.”
Cut to the church’s on-the-ground nemesis in Florida, former FDLE agent Manny Funes:
Funes: “They were making so much money from the sale of marijuana, the smuggling itself, that they were basically monopolizing Jamaica. I read a report one time that they had taken in over a billion dollars, and $200 million was coming back to the government.” 

Brother Gary and Keith Gordon

That type of high-profile financial demonstration stands in sharp contrast to the low profile approach of the group documented in part two of Square Grouper: Robert Platshornand “The Black Tuna Gang.” Cross-cutting helps Platshorn and business partner Robert Meinster narrate their low-key entry into Caribbean marijuana smuggling, after time spent serving as land-based connects. 
Platshorn: “We got started as a middle in the pot business. The middle is a man who has a seller and a buyer. And he puts the two together, and takes a few dollars out of the middle. And we got bigger and bigger as middles, we had customers who needed merchandise, or wanted merchandise, and the next step was naturally to become a smuggler.”
Meinster: “The connection was made on a trip that he and I went down to Colombia on.”
Platshorn: “We went, flew to Bogota, we stayed overnight. The next morning, we went to have breakfast out on the hotel patio outside. Back then, two gringos, well dressed, a little bit of gold, didn’t have any trouble attracting attention from the right people. A young guy came over, introduced himself. He said, ‘Why don’t we get to know each other, and maybe we’ll be able to discuss business. And of course, we knew what business he meant, and he knew what business we were down there for.”
Cut to vintage footage of a U.S. lawman showing a TV reporter how mother ships offload to smaller vessels that make landfall with their pot haul.
Platshorn then segways to the man who piloted his operation’s own boats.  
Platshorn: “Captain Randy, Randy Fisher, was just the greatest fisherman I ever met.”
Meinster: “We used to use him taking us out fishing. He was quite adept on the water. He knew all the waters in that vicinity.” 
Platshorn: “So we sort of eased into the pot business together.”
Fisher: “Gave me a little money to relax, and do a lot of fishing with Bobby and the whole crew.”

Black Tuna Gang fishing group.

Captain Randy wasn’t the only fisherman to make the leap from reeling in marlin to smuggling square grouper. Part three of the film explores the fate of Everglades City’s fishing community, accompanied by Starke singing Corben’s music and lyrics from “Ballad of Everglades City”:
In ’24, they built a city
Deep in the swamp,
Called Everglades.
Just off the coast,
Ten thousand islands.
They rode their boats
All through that maze.
And the fishin’
Was good here…
Men fed their fam’lies with
Crab traps and a sharp knife.
But they called it “The Last Frontier,”
A home for outlaws,
Where smugglin’ was a way of life.
And when the park came
They found their callin’
Smugglin’ was out
And grouper in
Fishin’ by day
At night, pot haulin’
The cops stood by
While cash rolled in
The whole town, they staked their claim,
Fixed up their houses and bought brand new cars
And that’s when the strangers came
Deep undercover
Aimin’ to put them behind bars.
Then they came before sunrise
The F B I and D E A.
They took everyone and they locked them up
And that was the end of the game.
This fam’ly would never be the same.
Some made their deals
with flashy lawyers
It was the last thing,
They ever bought.
So that’s the moral
Of this story:
Just keep your mouth shut,
You won’t get caught.
We’re talking less than 500 people, and what eventually happened was 80% of the male population was arrested for marijuana smuggling.
At the time of Square Grouper‘s 2011 release, Corben’s description to me of Everglades City placed it in sharp contrast to the neon-splashed Miami drug warzone of Cocaine Cowboys

Population, steady around 500 for the last several decades, and five family names in the entire town. And it is a fishing village literally in the middle of nowhere. They call it “the last frontier,” and anything that they could do on the water or bring in on the water, that’s what they would do. And that means poaching, ostrich plumes, Chinese immigrants, gator hides and eventually they kind of made their way to fishing, stone crabbing. They had a line on the river where they have all the fish houses. And what happened was [U.S. President Harry] Truman came in and dedicated Everglades National Park, and the waters became protected, and progressively more and more restrictions were placed on fishing in that area. This is the way the natives tell it. I’ll put it to you that way, and it’s historically accurate, but it also to a certain extent is a justification for why this happened. Commercial fishing was being squeezed out of the national park, and that was essentially the legitimate lifehood of the vast majority, if not the totality, of Everglades City and Chuckaluskee — with the minimal amount of tourism coming in, and airboat rides, and fishing trips, and charters and that sort of thing. But mostly, it was the commercial fishing. And the licenses that did exist, that were “grandfathered” in, but with an expiration date (that was the fine print), they were expiring progressively. The Mark Hunter story about it when he was working down in the Miami market in that time, he said that the federal government essentially told the citizens of Everglades City to find some other way to make a living — and they did. They had their boats. They had their marine charts and maps. And they made good use of them, and started to head on down to Colombia and Jamaica and meet mother ships off the coast, and started pot haulin’. And these are God-fearing church-going people. Many of them would whoop their kids behinds if they caught them smoking pot.

But then it turned into like the Beverly Hillbillies, because the next thing you know, all these folks have got money. There was one funny story about a wife who got so excited that she called into the city and had trucks come and deliver all new furniture for her house (new beds, new couches, new chairs, new dining room set, the works), and it got there, and there was no room in the house for all the furniture she had ordered. Her house was so small. They literally, after they had moved all the old furniture out, could not put all the furniture in. So, what did they do? They built additions to their houses. They bought the red wagons, which were very popular at the time. They had gold chains. It sort of transformed this little town. We’re talking less than 500 people, and what eventually happened was 80% of the male population was arrested for marijuana smuggling. There was two or three major raids: Operation Everglades, Operation Everglades II was like ’83-’84, and then ’89 I think was called Operation Peacekeeper. It was really over that span of time and, mind you, there were minor busts that occurred before that and in between those events. Those were the three major busts, but the first one, Operation Everglades, was the most famous.

Famous, yes. But relatively harmless. Too much furniture and expensive house additions are not the collateral damage of Rakontur storytelling’s most darkly compelling villain. Murder victims and a closet full of high fashion accessories (both considered easily-disposable) were more to the liking of one Griselda Blanco, aka “La Madrina”, aka “The Black Widow”, aka “The female Tony Montana.” 


Square Grouper article, December 1987

Griselda Blanco was shot to death in September of 2012 at a butcher shop in Medellin, Colombia. Two headshots from a motorbike gunman. She lived to be 69 — amazing, considering the carnage she created, and the powerful cartel she crossed.  
First chronicled in Cocaine Cowboys as the early-’80s source of some 250 drug war deaths (Miami-Dade County’s nation-leading peak homicide rate occurring 1980-’82), “La Madrina” (or “godmother”) was liaison to a Medellin, Colombia cartel that supplied first New York City, and then the Miami smuggling corridor with vast amounts of cocaine. It was Blanco who orchestrated the machine-gunning at Dadeland Mall’s Crown Liquors (which opens Cocaine Cowboys), and numerous other infamous drug war assassinations. Left to sift through the remains were local lawmen like City of Miami Homicide Sgt. Nelson Andreu, who tells Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben about Blanco’s payment approach: 

A lot people even refused to deal with her, because of the fact that you got killed one way or another.
What she would do is, if you bought drugs from her and didn’t pay her, she killed you. If she bought drugs from you and didn’t want to pay you, she’d kill you too.
Blanco did this while under the close eye of enforcers/hitmen like Carlos “Cumbamba” Arango (aka Miguel Velez), Miguel “Miguelito” Perez, and Jorge “Rivi” Ayala — the last serving as a critical storytelling source for the Cocaine Cowboys series. Ayala confessed to involvement in 29 murders amidst Miami’s cocaine-wrought warfare, while remaining under suspicion for another 12. He tells his story for Rakontur’s cameras from inside prison — a dynamic that Corben described to me in 2011:

He’s terribly charming and disarming, and the way I tell it is that he also speaks in a very soft voice. So, when you’re interviewing him in prison, you have to lean in close to him so you can get his mouth closer to your ear. And it’s about that moment that you realize, “Oh, I could be dead right now very easily,” and you understand why he was good at what he did. You have to remind yourself in that moment, “Holy shit, this is a guy who killed women and children and men with impunity if the price is right, or if there was a price that his boss put on their heads, and wouldn’t think twice about it.” So, he was very chilling and effective in that way — the way he put you at ease actually in his presence. I mean, we realized the movie was kind of a three-act structure in terms of the subject matter: drugs, money and murder. That was the story. It was the drugs, the money that came from it, and then the necessity of having to enforce a trade that generated that kind of money, because it’s a consignment business. You give someone two kilos, three kilos. You come back next week, you say, “Where’s my 150 grand or 200 grand?” And if they don’t have it, it’s not like you take them to court. You have to enforce your trade off the books, if you will, and they did that with enforcers and hitmen like Rivi. And so, we knew we had to get somebody from that role. Rivi is in a very unique situation, because he had a plea bargain with the state attorney in Miami-Dade county where he could speak chapter and verse on all of his murders and crimes that he committed in Miami-Dade county without fear of the death penalty. He essentially pled to three life sentences in exchange for his cooperation, and to avoid the electric chair at the time. We don’t use the electric chair any more — “Old Sparky” as it’s called down here. In fact, [Producer] Alfred [Spellman] corresponded with other hitmen who worked for Griselda Blanco (“La Madrina”), including Miguel Perez, who was the Marielito who committed the attempted murder on Papo Mejia at Miami International Airport with the World War II bayonet, where he stabbed him like six times and the guy survived. Miguel Perez, we met him in prison, and went so far as to set up the equipment for an interview he agreed to. And then, he was escorted by the prison guard to the set, and he said, “I can’t do it. My lawyer says I shouldn’t do it.”

Then there was Cumbamba, who you might recall earlier in the move, he helps with the [Herman] Grenados murder. This was the murder that Rivi had fucked up at the Jacaranda nightclub. That was the first time he met Griselda, who said, “Well, you’ve got to help us find him.” Rivi didn’t do this hit. But he helped them locate Grenados by paging a guy who knew him, or whatever. And he came, and that’s the guy whose blood they drained in the bathtub, and then broke his bones, so they could fold him up and put him in that box alongside the highway that we had the crime scene photos for. So Cumbamba, the guy who was involved in that hit, Alfred wrote him in prison. He was in prison in Louisiana for the murder of Barry Seal, the CIA operative turned drug informant who was murdered by Colombian hitmen in Baton Rouge at a halfway house. 

Alfred wrote to Cumbamba, who wrote him back and said he didn’t have the same deal that Rivi had, so he didn’t want to speak on crimes in Florida. He was doing his time in Louisiana, and wanted to finish that out in peace. He might have life there, but didn’t want to be extradited to face the death penalty. So, Alfred said, “Well, Cumbamba says he won’t do the interview, but he wants to know if we’d like a surreal watercolor painting that he did in prison.” And I believe my answer to Alfred was, “Fuck yes.” And he never sent it, unfortunately.

Griselda Blanco’s mug shot

Eventually, Blanco turned on her benefactors, fleeing South Florida before being captured by law enforcement in California, and ending up in federal prison. Even locked up, though, her aura as the very rare woman to rise high in the cocaine trade (allegedly still earning $50 million a year behind bars) attracted a handwritten letter of admiration from Oakland, California-based crack dealer Charles Cosby. Intrigued, Blanco responded, and a phone correspondence was started, which then evolved into both a business and romantic relationship. In the early/mid 1990s, Cosby ran the cross-country cocaine operation of “the Black Widow” (after her three dead husbands), becoming Blanco’s lover (also taking a bullet for straying), getting entwined in a bizarrely ambitious prison-break plan involving the kidnap and ransom of John F. Kennedy Jr., and a sex scandal in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office that led to Blanco’s unexpected early release and deportation back to Colombia in 2004 — all chronicled in Cocaine Cowboys 2.

Keeping with the story’s setting, the film opens with a thumping hip-hop soundtrack, featuring the testimonial lyrics of “The Real Scarface” by local rapper Ncredable Paul Brinkley:
Look, Scarface was a gangster. But that shit was fiction. My nigga, Charles Cosby? That nigga’s a living legend. That nigga’s the real Scarface, nigga. That nigga was putting it down.
Then, Cosby’s side of the story pipes up:
I’m the godfather, head honcho, married to the game like Griselda Blanco. 50 keys in the closet of my condo, bulletproof vest on my chest like a poncho. Ncredable, I clap like an encore. For the right price, I’ll turn you into a John Doe.
Accompanying each lyric is an instrumental punctuation that pauses the swirl of vintage photographs of Blanco, her sons, and associates, and then morphs them into comicbook versions — foreshadowing Rakontur’s approach of animating those still drawings in order to create flashbacks of shootouts, ambushes, and beatings from Blanco and Cosby’s distant early days. Beyond that, we see plenty of Cosby serving as onscreen narrator — a position earned from many, many jailhouse phone calls with Blanco, wherein she told him her life’s story of rising from teenaged Colombian street prostitute to America’s queen of cocaine dealing. However, to give a wider portrait of Blanco’s biography, Corben takes the time to go even further back. He lets Cosby describe Blanco’s first murder at age 11 (shooting a kidnapped 10 year-old Medellin boy in the face, after his family wouldn’t pay a ransom), then supplies an animated re-enactment to Cosby’s recounting of the event that turned La Madrina to prostitution:
The Godmother’s mother, Ana Lucia Restrepo, was an alcoholic. They had a strained relationship. During Ana’s incessant drinking binges, she would physically assault Griselda. Griselda decided one day, “I’m tired of being jumped on by my mom, so I’m going to fight back. I’m going to stand my own ground.” So this one particular night, it was pouring down outside. It was driving rain. Ana began beating Griselda up with her fists. She grabbed her by her hair with one hand, and started punching her in the face with the other hand. Griselda was kicking and screaming, but she was no match for Ana, because Ana was 100 pounds heavier than Griselda. She knocked Griselda to the ground. So once on the floor, Ana starts thumping Griselda. So Griselda was finally able to get up off the floor and run towards the door — blood flowing from her nose, from her mouth, face swelling up. Ana grabbed her by her shirt. Griselda was still in the motion of running, so the shirt actually ripped from her back. So by the time she got outside, she was bare-chested. She only had pants on. So she ran through the driving rain, past the pits of mud, past the cows, the wild pigs, and she worked her way all the way to the Medellin Valley. From the time that she was forced from home at the age of 14, up until she was in her early 20s, the Godmother was a prostitute in Colombia. 

Griselda Blanco and Charles Cosby

This focus on exploring the depth and range of their subjects is a critical reason for why Cocaine Cowboys remains a relevant continuing storyline for viewers, though the primary era it highlights is some 35 years gone. The upcoming Los Muchachos installment will continue that character-driven theme, framing its six-part years-in-the-making narrative around Cuban cocaine smugglers Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. That includes a look at the cigarette speedboats they used to outrun government coastal patrols in the 1980s, and the assassination of witnesses against them during their 1990s legal trials. In fact, their reputation has already earned them a place in lyrics rapped by Rick Ross during Meek Mill’s “Dope Dealer”:

Sal Magluta, Willy Falcon
Flamboyant dope boy, I’m talkin’ Al Capone 

From Monte Carlo to Los Muchachos
My Mexicano not talking tacos
It’s jury tampering once a nigga push that button (pop,pop,pop!)

The Los Muchachos storyline was intended to be part of the original Cocaine Cowboys, but the lack of on-camera access at the time to those involved took the narrative in a different direction. For Corben and Rakontur, better late than never — and in the spirit of Corben’s pinned tweet, better to tell a good Miami story well, than to fuck it up by rushing.