Review: “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Elaine Carey, professor of history and Dean of the College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Purdue University Northwest, and a regular contributor to Points. Today she reviews a recent theatrical production that should be of interest to drug scholars. 

Screenshot 2019-05-07 at 8.13.59 AMFor this dope scholar, a recent trip to Miami would not have been complete without catching the play Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy at the Colony Theatre in South Beach, which opened on March 7, 2019 and closed on April 7, 2019. Written by Billy Corben and Aurin Squire and directed by Michael Hausman, the play is based on the docudramas Cocaine Cowboys (2006) and Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin with the Godmother (2008), which chronicled the Miami Drug wars and the lives of Griselda Blanco and her assassin Jorge “Rivi” Ayala.  

The star of the play is Yancey Arias, who portrays Rivi and delves into the character showcasing aspects of Rivi not previously mentioned in the docudrama.  Arias has been in numerous shows, including Kingpin, Queen of the South, Thief, and a host of others. He is joined by an ensemble comprised of Stephen G. Anthony, Rubi Goblen, Andy Mendez, Zillah Mendoza, and Nicolas Richberg.  The actors play a host of characters that are familiar to fans of Cocaine Cowboys, Richard Smitten’s book The Godmother, and Max Mermelstein’s memoir The Man who Made it Snow.

The play, the theatre, and Miami now officially hail that the city recognizes itself as the capital of Latin America and the city that cocaine built.  The chronicling of that era in Confessions and Cocaine Cowboys by Corben and Squire have changed how Miami tells its own history.  

The play tackles heady subjects that define Miami, such as corruption, nepotism, race, drugs, and crime.  In exchanges between the sonorous Rivi and irritated Detective Vanegas, played by Mendez, the tensions between Cubans and other Latin American immigrants are displayed.  As Vanegas epically recounts how he came to the United States, he sees Rivi as an antagonist to the Cuban American heroic story. Colombians sullied the paradise that gave countless Cubans a new place to call home.  Rivi positions his life as a tale of opportunities as he pursued the American dream that shifted from Chicago to Miami, and from stealing cars to working as an assassin. He is a chameleon who readily understands power and manipulation, which is what fascinated the authors and the countless fans of Cocaine Cowboys.  

Mendoza’s roles as Kathy, Griselda Blanco and Gladys reflect the women in Rivi’s life. Kathy is Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has been the state attorney for Miami-Dade County since 1993.  Her tenure is portrayed as rife with corruption, and Rivi and the other actors regale the audience with tales of her alleged misdeeds.  Blanco is Rivi’s boss and a woman who is far more famous today than she was in the early 1980s. Blanco recruited Rivi and he became one of her many assassins. Gladys is Rivi’s wife. Rivi sees only subtle differences between Fernandez Rundle and Blanco. Both women protected their families to ensure success. Like Fernandez Rundle, Blanco was one of few women in a male-dominated field during the 1970s and 1980s. As the highest-ranking woman in the Medellín cartel, she employed violence to ensure her success until Rivi became her nemesis to save himself from the death penalty.   

The play is a great romp through a not too distant past.  The playbill and opening comments contain the following warning: “gunfire, strobe lights, strong language, violence, blood, and other Florida fuc**ry will be experienced during the performance.” Indeed, it was.  Florida of the early 1980s and its drug wars appear almost quaint criminal stories of a distant past similar to Frank Sinatra’s Man with the Golden Arm. Miami Vice, Scarface, and Cocaine Cowboys regale us with the tales of men and a few women in a different era.  That era led to the crack epidemic and devastated cities and families. That era appears to pale to the present with access to burner phones, bitcoins, internet banking, militarized policing, and the dark web.  Significantly, Corben and Squire recognize that the drug violence of the late 1970s and 1980s led to the escalation of the Drug Wars. Those ongoing wars are directly connected to the loosening of gun laws that have contributed to massacres in Florida (and the rest of the US) and that the drug violence that has criminalized low level dealers and contributed to the mass incarceration of young African Americans and Latinos.

Since the release of the first docudramas in 2006, other films and attempts to tell the story of the Miami drug wars have been made.  Catherine Zeta Jones’s Lifetime rendition of Griselda Blanco was a horrible melodrama that remains the only full-length production.  Mermestein’s biopic has yet to make it to the big screen, and neither has Rivi’s. Lawsuits and production issues have undermined a cinematic telling of these tales, though there are always options and plans.  Like Corben discovered, the future may be in live action, in a small theater in a city that cocaine cowboys and cowgirls helped to erect and expand. Yet, Confessions challenges us to consider the bigger consequences of those events almost forty years ago.  

Gender and Critical Drug Studies: A Woman Formed the First Cartel?

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Elaine Carey, professor of history and Dean of the College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Purdue University Northwest. In it, she explores more about her article on Delia Patricia Buendía Gutierrez, a contemporary female leader of a Mexican drug trafficking organization, which appeared in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

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Elaine Carey

To analyze contemporary female leaders of Mexican drug trafficking organizations, I focused on Delia Patricia Buendía Gutierrez, also known as “Ma Baker,” because she represents a historical continuity of the women in the drug trade.  More significantly, however, her organization represents how the history of drugs responds to various contingent and changing factors and events.

Buendía formed a powerful familial-based drug trafficking organization (DTO) that grew the internal cocaine trade in Mexico. She and her daughters Marcela Gabriela, Nadia Isabel, and Norma Patricia, along with extended family and sons-in-laws, built a “narcomenudeo” network in the working class suburb of Ciudad Neza.  There, the Buendía became instrumental to other DTOs by responding to changing demand patterns in the US that shifted from cocaine to heroin. This shift was, in part, due to the over prescription of opioids by medical doctors which triggered a wide spread heroin epidemic.

Continue reading →

Booze Collectors, Part I

As a historian, I want to pause for a moment and thank the collectors. While I enjoy a jaunt through an antique, rare books, or vintage store, I have not developed the eye or the love of the search and acquisition of some desired object, document, book, or even clothing item. As a historian, I also readily admit that I do not have the financial resources of some of the great collectors of Americana. Richard Gilder, Lewis Lehrman, Samuel Tilden, John Jacob Astor, or James Lenox  have been instrumental in building historical collections in New York City such as Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History at the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library-Steve Schwartzman building. Their love of history and their ability to collect it have given many historians the evidence needed to demonstrate the complexity of the past. These important collections grew due, in part, to the focused work of collectors.

These stewards of American history have played an important role in my research and teaching. For the past couple of years, I have worked closely with librarians and archivists in New York City to teach my students to use the great collections resources for their own projects. That ongoing collaboration with historical practitioners has greatly enhanced my knowledge about drug and alcohol collections. As I discussed in a previous blog, “Doing Drugs in the Archive,”  there are many unique collections on drugs and alcohol that are worth a trip to New York. Returning to this theme, I plan to highlight a couple of collections this year, and I want to start by introducing a smaller collection:the Liebmann collection of American historical documents relating to spirituous liquors. It is part of the Manuscripts and Archives Division,  The New York Public Library Astor, Lenox, and nypldoorTilden Foundations in the Schwartzman Building.  Continue reading →

Days of the Dead

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, renowned Mexican writer and cultural critic Octavio Paz observed: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, Paris, and London because it burns the lips.  The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death jokes about it, caresses it,

Mixquic, Mexico

sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves” (Paz, 57).  On the eve of All Saints and All Souls days, the Mexican drug war has spawned a new genre of death imagery that now threatens Paz’s cultural perceptions.

Lenin Márquez Salazar’s paintings document the impact of narco violence.  In one painting of Aparecidos, a young boy wearing a cap with Sylvester chasing Tweety Bird smiles to the viewer before a bound body murdered execution style.  The child’s innocence is blighted by the images of death that surround him in a dreamlike state.  At first glance, he appears unaware, but on closer inspection he appears years older, as he holds the viewers gaze with an uneasy smirk.  Is he the assassin or unwitting victim of a narco drama?  In his landscape series Paisajes,the beauty of the countryside is tarnished by the bound and murdered bodies that mar it,  but the dead are just as essential as the trees, mountains, and sky.

Paisaje I by Lenin Márquez Salazar

For years, drugs have—borrowing from Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters–haunted Mexico, Continue reading →

A Colombian Queen’s Tale: The End and Beginning of Griselda Blanco

Griselda Blanco, the Cocaine Godmother, was gunned down in front of a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia on September 3, 2012.  Since her initial indictments in New York City beginning in the early 1970s, Blanco has flitted in and out of the popular imagination.  Tales of Blanco emerged first in police and court documents and newspapers. In more recent years, she could be found in nonfiction, docudramas, popular magazines, blogs, YouTube, and other media.

Like other high-level female drug traffickers, Blanco created important alliances with men, but differed from her peers due to her extensive use of violence.  She employed it as an offensive tool against male competitors and even men who were employed by her or her clients.  Violence served to demonstrate her power and to strike fear in the men that surrounded her. Her ruthlessness contributed to a growing gangster hagiography and titillation that continues to surround her and those men connected to her. This explains why her death brought new attention.  Yet, Blanco’s story is another New York City organized crime tale with many twists and turns: changing criminal enterprises, licit and illicit work, lovers turned traitors, and police/criminal chases across continents. Continue reading →

Mexico’s Election: Drug Continuities or Contingencies? By Javier Alvarez-Isasi and Elaine Carey

As historians, we know that there are historical continuities and contingencies.  We study these, debate these, and occasionally we attempt to make a few insights into the present day.  This post attempts to perform the latter. So, here we go again with another Mexican presidential election that is rife with continuities and contingencies.

Voting in Atlacomulco, July 2012

In 2000, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) lost seventy continued years of presidential power. That year, we observed the elections and the massive eruption of street celebrations when it was announced that Vicente Fox had won the election.  Twelve years later, 2012 was the PRI’s come back year, and it ran as a deep-pocketed opposition party with a telegenic candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.  Of course, the PRI had less support from the middle and educated classes, groups that the party had  courted since the 1940s. With the murder of the PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, the Zapatista uprising that same year, and the Aguas Blanca massacre of a group of campesinos (Mexican peasants) in 1996, the PRI lost credibility in all levels of the public sphere.  The PRI political machine had long created an illusion of respectability and control through sheer force and media manipulation.  However, massacres, social upheavals, bank collapses, power politics resembling organized crime syndicates, hyper inflation, and devaluations became more and more difficult for Mexicans to stomach and ignore. Continue reading →

Doing Drugs in the Archives

The summer brings scholars from all across the United States and the world to New York City’s libraries and archives.   For the past three years, I have been introducing my undergraduate students to “doing history” with my former student Raymond Pun who is a librarian at the New York Public Library.  In some ways, teaching undergrads to use archives is my day job.  My other gig is that I have spent the last seven years doing drugs. . . . that is doing them in the archives and libraries in  the city. My collaboration with Pun, as well as other librarians and archivists, has given me an opportunity to mine historical and contemporary sources that I never would have found without their knowledge and assistance.  This list is not exhaustive, but rather it highlights a few public and private libraries and archives.

The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (SASB), the main research library, is the forth-largest library in the world and the second largest research library in the United States.  The stacks stretch under Bryant Park as well as onto offsite locations in New Jersey.  This lion guarded edifice is also full of drug paraphernalia in the form of novels, books, documents, images, maps, realia, and ephemera. The periodicals division where Pun is the librarian holds newspapers from around the world, but also Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs. It was in the pages of that publication that I found the some early photos of seizures including heroin-infused fibers, a skill that continues into the present. Continue reading →