MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In the late '70s and early '80s, the Mutiny Hotel in Miami was the place to be seen and to drop scads of cash. Everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Led Zeppelin to Teddy Kennedy might be found at the Mutiny's exclusive, members-only nightclub. It was a palace of decadence and intrigue, and it quickly became a hub for Miami's exploding cocaine trade. Journalist Roben Farzad charts the rise and fall of the Mutiny in his new book "Hotel Scarface." Roben, welcome to the program.
ROBEN FARZAD: Thank you so much for having me.
BLOCK: And Miami is your hometown. Why don't you describe what had become of the Mutiny Hotel when you first saw it when you were a teenager in the early '90s?
FARZAD: I mean, I grew up with much of the rest of the world experiencing Miami Friday nights on "Miami Vice." That was the it show of the mid-1980s, kind of a Hollywood MTV-ized representation of a lot of the ugliness and cosmopolitan splendor (laughter) that we had of Miami at the same time. But right before I left off for college up north in 1994, I had a job just downtown in Miami, and I was stationed in front of this abandoned building. And, really, for the first time in my life I feel like I was truly, truly haunted.
BLOCK: Haunted, why? What did it look like?
FARZAD: It didn't make any sense. Why was this gorgeous property on a waterfront strip in front of a marina in an exclusive part of town derelict? And why were there vagrants in the building? Why was there graffiti everywhere? Why was the pool overflowing with turkey vultures and - the point is I became homesick when I went to college, and I kept scratching that itch. I kept thinking back to that tableau and what the heck was going on over there.
BLOCK: Well, the Mutiny had fallen totally far from its heyday when it was a - just a place of complete excess. People, as you describe it, were literally bathing in tubs that were filled with hundreds of bottles of Dom Perignon. What were the other outrageous stories you heard about what went on at the Mutiny?
FARZAD: I mean, cash money was truly no object. You get $625 of cocaine base in the Andes. By the time it hits Miami, the street value, long and short of it, is $625,000. You multiply that by hundreds and thousands of kilos, and you can truly see that this city was inundated with hot money. I mean, the Federal Reserve system down there in 1980 had a $5 billion cash surplus, which was more than all the other Federal Reserve banks combined. So people could not spend money fast enough. You know, one of the bodyguards - he had his steering wheel covered in $50,000 worth of diamonds that spelled out his name. One asks another, what's the most extravagant thing I could do? And the other guy's, like - I think he's coked out - and says I don't know. Why don't you just fill your hot tub with Dom? So you buy hundreds of bottles. It's not even full. And you jump in and burn your privates anyway. But it didn't matter because you were telegraphing to all the celebs and all the groupies and all the, you know, gorgeous, bored trophy wives there that money was no object to you. So in a weird way, it was kind of a democratizing thing.
BLOCK: Or probably not their wives, actually.
FARZAD: (Laughter) No, they were mistresses. They were wives. As as everybody explained to me, this was pre-AIDS. You know, the swinging '70s. Up to about '82, no one had kind of realized that promiscuity can bounce back and hit you in really deadly ways.
BLOCK: So, Roben, there's all this craziness and excess. But at the same time, of course, this cocaine trade brought a world of violence to Miami. And you talk about the murder rate in Dade County, which is doubling in just a couple of years.
FARZAD: You think about the combustibility in those wild cash profits. And on top of the fact, in 1980, Fidel Castro says that he's flushing his toilets on the United States. He unleashes 125,000 refugees - maybe 10,000 to 15,000 of those were criminals. Some of the most violent ones indeed had their weapons of choice tattooed on the inside of their lips. So Miami was really ill-prepared to handle that inundation. There were race riots going on. And amid all of this, you have the hot pursuit of cocaine, money and sex and speedboats. And lots of really deranged things, in 20/20 hindsight, happened in that midst.
BLOCK: Here's what I don't understand because these drug kingpins were basically hiding in plain sight. They were flaunting their wealth at the Mutiny. Undercover cops were right there. That was their beat - to stake out the Mutiny. They knew these guys. Were the drug lords untouchable? Why weren't they caught sooner?
FARZAD: For starters, every cop really, ultimately, was for sale. And there are various examples in this book where paperwork suddenly goes missing or recordings are deleted in an evidence locker. But on top of that, the very wise and savvy cops who decided that, you know, they were going to stay in the system and be clean - they realized they needed an ecosystem with which to watch how these guys interface. I mean, the homicide cops decide to use the dopers to tip them off to some of the most murderous people in Miami, so they can nab them. Morale was awful in the Miami Police Department at the turn of the decade. A homicide cop compared it to pushing sand against the tide.
BLOCK: Ultimately, that leads to the downfall of much of the cocaine trade there. Where have these cocaine cowboys, as they're known, ended up?
FARZAD: You know, many of them served half their lives in prison. The quote, unquote, "victors of this story," los muchachos - the boys Willie and Sal - they were on the lam for much of the 1980s. And the U.S. government and the Justice Department only really caught up with them in the early '90s. And even then, Willie Falcon, one of the major characters in the book - he just got out of jail. But Uncle Sam wants to deport him to his native Cuba, where he might be facing some sort of assassination because he funded anti-Castro causes. A lot of these guys have since reabsorbed back into the skyline of Miami. You don't see the bullets flying like they used to. People get into more kosher money laundering, Medicare fraud, some other (laughter) - let's say more savory crimes in the white-collar world. But that hot money, that dirty money is always being laundered in Miami, and I think that's just been the case for a century.
BLOCK: Roben Farzad. His book is "Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied And Plotted To Control Miami." Roben, thanks so much.
FARZAD: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAN HAMMER'S "CROCKETT'S RETURN")