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"Square Grouper": A hilarious, tragic tale of Florida ganja

  1. Terrapinzflyer
    When weed was king: "Square Grouper" recalls the mellow, pre-coke era of the Sunshine State's drug trade

    Miami-based documentary filmmaker Billy Corben is halfway between a journalist and a cultural archaeologist, excavating the history of a region that seems to have no history, and to scarcely be a place at all. Corben may always be best known for "Cocaine Cowboys," his exhaustive and frequently hair-raising survey of the insane Florida drug wars of the 1980s, but his new film "Square Groupers," which looks back to a mellower time and a more benevolent drug, is altogether a droller, drier work, infused with the spirit of Elmore Leonard and Jimmy Buffett. (The title refers to the famous but apocryphal notion that Florida fisherman occasionally caught bales of marijuana dumped overboard by smugglers.)

    Corben's cinematic style is largely about scene-setting, conversation and juxtaposition: His team digs up amazing vintage news footage, he interviews survivors of the era in question (frequently in prison uniforms, or with a cold beverage in hand) and just enough atmosphere is created to convey how a sleepy, sun-baked Southern state turned into a criminal paradise. If "Cocaine Cowboys" was an epic, ironic yarn of murder and madness and the building of a boomtown built largely on drug money, "Square Groupers" is a more rueful tale. As it should be, since the 1970s crackdown on pot smugglers and dealers depicted here marked the beginning of an especially pernicious era of anti-drug hysteria led by federal law enforcement authorities. (Furthermore, while I'm in favor of legalizing and licensing drugs, let's not pretend that there's any real relationship between marijuana and cocaine; they're roughly as similar as Pinot Grigio and OxyContin.)

    "Square Groupers" begins with a section on the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a legendary Miami hippie-meets-Rasta cult movement of the '70s that combined fundamentalist Christian doctrine with limitless amounts of high-grade Jamaican ganja. Originally, the Coptics had good success using the First Amendment's religion clause as a shield, even buying a mansion on Star Island, off Miami Beach. But since they were not merely smoking immense amounts of dope but also dealing it by the thousands of kilos, the Feds ultimately crushed them, which led to further abuses like the prosecution of the "Black Tuna Gang," in reality just a couple of transplanted Philadelphia businessmen turned mid-level Miami weed merchants.

    Those stories are alternately hilarious and terrifying -- the Black Tuna defendants wound up serving ridiculously long prison sentences on trumped-up charges -- but I almost wish Corben had spent more time in Everglades City, a flyspeck fishing village 80 miles west of Miami that's his final stop. This waterlogged but intensely colorful little town on the edge of Everglades National Park is where the Wild West meets the Caribbean. As South Florida's commercial fishing industry began to fade, virtually the entire town turned to pot smuggling. Everglades City is like a certain mode of Southern fiction come to life; one nearly toothless local tells Corben's camera that running dope opened up the world to him. He'd never been out of the county, and suddenly he was making weekly boat trips to Colombia, learning a little Spanish, getting to know an entirely new class of women.

    "Square Groupers" is now playing at the Cinema Village in New York and the O Cinema in Miami. It's available April 19 on DVD and April 22 on VOD and from Netflix.

    APR 16, 2011



  1. squeezix
    There is at least on "Square Grouper Bar and Grill" in the keys. There is also an old tale I have heard a few times and from players in the same game about a raid on an apartment in Key West where a kilo of coke had arrived in the mid-80's. The guys in the apartment were fishermen/divers and they had been tipped off. There was a Jewfish (they are called Goliath Grouper now on a reef on Sand Key, a popular diving spot. Now Jewfish get almost as big as Volkswagons, and they often eat by creating a vacuum of water by opening their mouths rapidly. These guys put chum all over a well-wrapped Kilo and tempted the fish and he ate it, thus hiding their stash for a short time while they figured out how to move it. I have dove Sand Key and I have seen the fish they allegedly used, I forget his name, but he was a famous fish!

    It sounds far-fetched, but I'm tempted to believe it as it is possible and this is a verry very weird part of the country.

    Thanks for the link, Terrapinz, you often brighten my day.
  2. Ghetto_Chem
    Swims friend of a friends fathers brothers uncle was a "Cocaine Cowboy" as they call them. The stories he told were probably fiction.

    God the stories he has told...

    He said that back then the border was very easy to get over, at first at least. They would simply drive the shit across the border, he said there would be a checkpoint out in the middle of the desert. He would have the back of a truck full of boxes with marijuana leaves stamped on them and a guy in a rocking chair reading the paper would just wave em on by. This was back when cannabis was the main import. After awhile though this became dangerous he said.

    They started using cigarette boats and planes. And they moved to bigger and better things as well... cocaine. He said that in order to avoid detection they would have to fly 50-100 feet off the water. He only did that a few times before he said fuck that lol. The columbians pretty much ran the most of it in the beginning but then the cubans and haitians tried to weasle in as well. This caused lots of conflict.

    He said that the cubans and haitians had shitty blow, but the columbians only pushed the best. They called it peruvian flake back then and he claims that only the best was almost pinkish in color.

    He usually keeps most of the stories to himself, but swims friend has been told by him, of people getting murdered. One guy decided he wanted to jack a kilo from the columbians, they tied him up by his feet. Then made everyone watch while they slowly cut him up and let him bleed out, to show that they are not to be fucked with.

    He said the best way for him at least back then, was to have a dirtbike/roadbike hybrid type motorcycle. Pack a kilo in each bag and haul ass.

    Another story he had was one time he was hunting out (probably illegally) in a pasture. He heard sirens and then a plane flew over dropping bricks. He went over to the area that they were dropping, and found a kilo of coke out in the pasture. He was so rich at the time though that this meant nothing.

    Lots of crazy things happened in those days, many people died. He is still free to this day. He says that most that entered that game never made it out, usually after the big boys used ya they would just kill ya cuz they were afraid of what you knew. But of course this is purely fictional, nobody ever does anything like that then gets away with it.

    Just to let people know too, although he had it all at that time and was rich as fuck. He lost it all and now is poorer than some homeless people. Karma probably.

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