``When the drugs came flowing in, it just changed the landscape here,'' said Mark R. Trouville, chief of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration field office in Miami.
``It kind of became the Wild West down here for a while,'' added Trouville, who began his DEA career here in 1979.
Miami remains a key command center for the worldwide cocaine trade, particularly for Colombian cartels, and is still a major drug money-laundering locale. But the violence has largely disappeared as the cocaine kingpins have become less ``Scarface'' and more corporate.
``They have become more diverse and less flamboyant,'' said Guy Lewis, a former federal prosecutor in Miami now in private practice. ``One thing that has not changed is the money. The trade is still awash in cash.''
The ``Miami Vice'' TV series (1984-89) accurately reflected those crazy times, according to people who lived through them. The movie, opening Friday and starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, is set in the present and does not resurrect the old days, according to its producers.
Robert Hoelscher, a Miami-Dade County police sergeant and consultant for the TV show, said: ``85 percent of what we put on television was a paraphrase of actual cases.''
``There was a constant turf war,'' said Hoelscher. ``We were out-equipped. They had better aircraft. They had bigger, faster boats. They had automatic weapons. We were outgunned in many respects.''
Drug traffickers were regularly gunned down on city streets, sometimes in broad daylight, and bullet-riddled bodies turned up frequently in remote locations. One lawyer was shot to death in his office after he was subpoenaed in a drug case. A liquor store at a popular shopping mall was shot up by men wielding submachine guns and driving around in an armored panel truck.
Bryan Page, chairman of the University of Miami's anthropology department, said the ``cocaine cowboy period'' in the city's history began in the 1970s when an established Cuban network of traffickers and cocaine users attracted the attention of Colombians who saw a potentially lucrative market.
``The violence that was taking place was essentially Colombians taking over Cuban territory,'' Page said. ``They were very bold. People would get shot up sitting at traffic lights. It was that kind of Wild West atmosphere that attracted the attention of the people putting together `Miami Vice.'''
In the 1983 Brian De Palma film ``Scarface'' written by Oliver Stone, Al Pacino played Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who rises to the top of the Miami criminal underworld then dies a spectacularly violent death.
In between, Montana narrowly escapes a chain saw, watches someone hanged from a helicopter and battles his rivals with (``Say hello to my little friend!'') an M-16 assault rifle and other heavy artillery.
The DEA's Trouville said that was not too far from the truth.
``They were shooting each other left and right,'' he said. ``It was a time when there were no rules yet. Everybody was trying to establish themselves in the drug world here.''
Although cocaine continues to flow into Miami, it has been eclipsed by the U.S. border with Mexico as a drug trade flashpoint. There is far less violence today. And as shown by the recent indictment of members of an alleged drug ring responsible for bringing some 70 tons (63.7 metric tons) of cocaine into the United States, the drug lords have blended into South Florida society.
``They used to drive Ferraris and Porsches,'' Lewis said. ``Now they drive Camrys. They've gone from the penthouse to the suburbs.''
Colombian-born Pablo Rayo Montano, currently awaiting extradition from Brazil, and 31 members of his alleged drug trafficking organization were indicted in May on various drug charges. Court documents in that case show that family members and associates had businesses and other assets in South Florida, including homes in quiet Broward County suburbs and tried to stay under the radar.
Hoelscher said the drug traffickers learned that violence—besides putting their own lives in constant jeopardy—was bad for business because of the heat it brought from law enforcement.
``There's more sophistication today,'' Hoelscher said. ``You can do it much easier with payoffs and corruption than you can with the gun-in-the-ear kind of thing.''