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‘Cocaine Cowboys’: A true-crime series so great, it’s addictive

Brilliant Netflix documentary tells the wildly entertaining saga of Miami drug kingpins Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon.

As Sal Magluta (left) and Willy Falcon, the subjects of “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami,” were building their drug network, they also were appearing on TV as champion speedboat captains.
Netflix

At least once or twice in every episode of the brilliant and captivating and wildly entertaining six-part Netflix true crime documentary series “Cocaine Cowboys,” there’s a revelation that has us exclaiming “Holy …” something.

Just a small sampling:

  • Even as Cuban-born, Miami-based drug kingpins Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon were building a massive cocaine-distribution network in the 1980s and rising to the top of the drug dealing game, they were appearing on ESPN as the smiling and jovial and ultra-competitive captains of Team Seahawk, which won multiple national offshore powerboat championships.
  • Years later, after Magluta and Falcon were acquitted of ordering murders and numerous other serious crimes despite a mountain of evidence against them, the feds started looking into the financial dealings of the jury foreman, an airline mechanic with a modest income who suddenly was paying off all his credit card debt, buying a home in the Florida Keys with cash and purchasing a snazzy boat. The foreman’s defense attorneys came up with an all-time doozy of a defense: Yes, the foreman was spending hundreds of thousands in cash from crimes — but the money didn’t come from Magluta and Falcon, it came from the foreman’s cousin, a crooked Miami cop. In other words, he was spending DIFFERENT crime money.
  • Among the many high-priced, high-profile defense attorneys at one time employed by Magluta and Falcon was Roy “The Professor” Black, who successfully defended William Kennedy Smith against rape charges, and subsequently married one of the jurors, Lea Black. She eventually became a cast member on “The Real Housewives of Miami” — along with the ex-wife of one Pedro “Pegy” Rosello, a criminal associate of Magluta and Falcon.

Don’t worry, I’m not giving away all the good stuff; not by a long shot. That’s just a small sampling of the bat-bleep crazy developments in director Billy Corben’s epic, expanded follow-up to his memorable cult classic 2006 documentary, “Cocaine Cowboys,” and the 2008 “Cocaine Cowboys 2.” This is an extremely well-crafted, fast-paced and consistently involving series, featuring the usual true-crime documentary mix of archival footage, undercover audio and video recordings, present-day interviews with prosecutors, journalists and many of the key criminal players on the expansive Magluta/Falcon crime tree, and some terrific visuals — including timelines illustrated as lines of cocaine, and courtroom-style sketches where the eyes of the witnesses suddenly come to animated life. (Trust me, it’s a really cool and effective device.)

This is also one of the best-edited documentary series I’ve ever seen. “Cocaine Cowboys” juggles an ever-growing roster of colorful characters, but we never lose sight of the main storylines, and just when we’re wondering, “Hey what about so-and-so?” boom! We return to that particular story. It’s as if the filmmakers are anticipating exactly what the viewers want to see next.

“Cocaine Cowboys” does a remarkable job in chronicling the larger-than-Miami-Vice story of Augusto “Willy” Falcon and Salvador “Sal” Magluta, Cuban exiles and high school friends who quickly rose from relatively small-time drug dealers to become the primary American distributors for two of Colombia’s biggest cartels. They were smart and they were charming and they were flamboyant and they were ambitious, and they rode the wave of the cocaine madness that permeated South Florida — and New York City and Los Angeles and everywhere in between — in the 1980s.

Everybody, including law enforcement officials, knew Falcon and Magluta were drug kingpins. They had extravagant lifestyles even though neither of them had legitimate jobs, they employed longtime friends and relatives to assist them in their criminal endeavors and they became folk heroes in their community. Time and again, the feds would build a case against “Los Muchachos” — but it took decades and multiple trials before Falcon and Magluta, and at least 50 other individuals associated with them, finally were served the justice they had coming to them.

Along the way, there were some jaw-dropping developments, as when the vaunted defense team placed a notice in Prison Life magazine seeking the whereabouts of potential witnesses — and a number of those witnesses turned up dead. Then there was the aforementioned episode with the jury foreman along with two other jurors receiving bribes. Three criminally compromised jurors on a single case!

Director Corben sprinkles in clips from films such as “The Godfather” and “Pulp Fiction” and peppers the soundtrack with songs such as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” by Miami Sound Machine and “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle and a Spanish-language version of the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” performed by JP Castillo. (The rousing original main title, “Blood Sport,” is courtesy of Pitbull.) These touches further add to the feeling we’re watching a non-fiction crime film with more than enough elements to make for an epic feature by a Scorsese or a Tarantino. “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami” is one of the best true crime documentary series in recent years.