What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

‘Hotel Scarface’ recounts glamorous, infamous epicenter of Miami’s cocaine days

Colorful but violent personalities roamed the streets of Miami in the late 1970s and early 1980s when cocaine came to town and drug lords helped make it the murder-capital of America. In “Hotel Scarface,” journalist Roben Farzad recounts the story of the Mutiny Hotel, a hot spot for money, sex and cocaine that became ground zero of Miami's coke culture. Farzad joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally, in the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf, Jeffrey Brown examines the Wild West that was Miami Beach, where cocaine cowboys played and died.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Al Pacino's gangster snarl in the film "Scarface," the oh-so-cool undercover detectives in "Miami Vice," the popular culture images of Miami in the 1980s, when cocaine drug lords helped make it the murder capital of America.

    The real-life story is told in the new book "Hotel Scarface." Author Roben Farzad is a business journalist, host of "Full Disclosure" on NPR One, and occasional contributor to this program.

    And it's nice to talk to you, Roben.

  • Roben Farzad:

    So nice to…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We usually talk about economics, but here we are. Why this subject? Why did you want to go look at this story?

  • Roben Farzad:

    My heart has been with this for — in the 22 to 23 years since I left Miami to go to college.

    When cocaine came to town, it was so ridiculously profitable, it was so seductive, it made people do such crazy things in the name of money and power and bloodlust, that you had something approximating a failed state by 1981 in Miami.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The epicenter is this hotel. It's — you nickname it Scarface Hotel, right? But it's the Mutiny was the real place.

  • Roben Farzad:

    That's right.

    It was called the Hotel Mutiny at Sailboat Bay. And the first three floors had a club, a private discotheque, a restaurant, a lounge, a tiki bar. And it was just infamous. All the celebs who would come to Miami, Fleetwood Mac, The Cars — Crosby and Nash recorded a song about the place. Neil Young would be there.

    It was kind of the closest thing to Miami's Studio 54 at the turn of the decade, 1979-1980, well before South Beach had arrived on kind of the global hot spot scene.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, the celebrities were there, but it's the drug lords and the gangsters, that's where a lot of the action is.

  • Roben Farzad:

    It's the ecosystem of all that money that was there, money and sex and cocaine and aspiration.

    In the case of the Cuban exiles who came to this country penniless, who really wrested control of the cocaine trade by the late '70s, and didn't mind being seen with the most gorgeous models and "Playboy" casting calls and powerful housewives and Richard Nixon's friends, everybody largely left everybody alone until all of Miami blew up.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, your book is filled with all these colorful characters, colorful, but violent characters.

  • Roben Farzad:

    Sure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Pick one. Tell — just to give us an example of somebody that kind of grabbed you.

  • Roben Farzad:

    I, like many people in Miami, am haunted by the specter of one Ricardo "Monkey" Morales. Monkey was his nickname.

    This was a guy who worked for Fidel Castro, became disillusioned with the violence and the revolutionary cause, was ostensibly flipped by the CIA, brought to Miami in the anti-Castro cause, and was really raring for a rematch.

    And when we had the Bay of Pigs invasion, and that fell through, literally all of exile Miami thought that it was fait accompli that Kennedy would finish the job. But then Kennedy didn't finish the job, and Kennedy dies, and LBJ is looking at Vietnam ultimately.

    And so you have all these orphaned people, all these bombers and mercenaries and CIA-trained people, like Monkey Morales, who are kind of rudderless for the '60s and '70s. And, first, pot happens.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Roben Farzad:

    And it's child's play for them to move marijuana, because the CIA trained them to know evasion on the coastline better than anybody else.

    And then cocaine is multiples as profitable. And even though Morales was shot and killed at about Christmas of '82, his ghost lingers. And I think he is a metaphor for everything that went wrong between Cuba and the United States.

    This was a person who was a romantic. He read history books. He quoted "Casablanca." He cried whenever it came on. But he also knew how to strangle people. He got away after shooting and killing several people. He was an informant. He hunted down Nazi fugitives, helped the Mossad.

    I mean, imagine his LinkedIn profile.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I was thinking, if I asked you about what surprises you found along the way, I mean, maybe frame it in terms of those cultural references I started with.

    Did they get it right when we look at "Scarface" or "Miami Vice"? What did they get right? What did they exaggerate?

  • Roben Farzad:

    What's shocking to me is, you can be meeting with ex-cons, people who have spent, say, upwards of 25, 30 years in prison, and they have now reintegrated back into Miami life.

    And they're having an early bird dinner with you on Coral Way or somewhere in Little Havana, and they're like, nine out of 10 times, you know, Tony Montana is based on me. The town rebelled against this entire concept of "Scarface" coming there to film in '82 and '83. They saw it as an affront to the exile community, until it became this pop culture totem.

    And then everybody after the fact was like, it was based on me. I had a leopard. No, it was based on me. Look, his throne looked like mine.

    And I believe that he was a composite that Oliver Stone and De Palma saw at this hotel.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What ended it? What brought this era to an end?

  • Roben Farzad:

    It just became so violent by 1981.

    It was fun and games in the sexy and swinging '70s, and people got along. The Colombians came in with a shot across the bow in 1979, the Dadeland Massacre. And then once the Mariel boat crisis happened, and you had 120,000 refugees end up in South Florida, maybe 10,000 north of them criminals, many violent criminals, it was every man for himself.

    And that's when the Miami Police Department, the DEA, the FBI — it became a national security concern for Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan in morning in America. I mean, after all, he deputized George Bush Sr. with his South Florida drug task force.

    So, when the feds got serious about it, I think all the fun and games and the hyperbole of it was shut down. But what's amazing to me is that it's very much a story that still exists in Miami's psyche and the Pan-American psyche, if you talk to people in Colombia and Panama and Venezuela.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Alright, the book is "Hotel Scarface."

    Roben Farzad, thanks very much.

  • Roben Farzad:

    Thank you.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Author Roben Farzad shares more books explaining Miami online. It's on our Web site.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest