This is a year in which Miami has been compelled to look back at two decisive events that shaped its destiny, both of which were widely acknowledged on their 25th anniversaries: the Mariel boatlift and the Liberty City riots. But a third fateful event hasn't received the recognition it deserves. It didn't begin on a specific day and in fact had been developing over several years, but by 1980 there was no doubt: Miami had become the cocaine capital of the USA.
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The amount of money produced by Miami's coke industry in the Eighties was unlike anything ever seen in the nation's history. So much cash was pouring into town from the wholesale and retail sectors of the trade that its sheer bulk presented logistical problems for the banks enthusiastically and unquestioningly accepting it. The U.S. Treasury Department made a couple of startling calculations: A full-size suitcase stuffed with twenty-dollar bills could hold roughly a half-million dollars, yet many millions were being deposited every day. How to count it all? Also this: Analysis indicated that, in 1978 and 1979, the United States' entire currency surplus could be ascribed to Miami-area banks. As IRS investigator Michael McDonald put it: "What we're dealing with here is beyond any imagination."
With the staggering amounts of money came ostentatious displays of wealth, violence spawned by greed, public corruption, and a virtual blizzard of cocaine enveloping the city. T.D. Allman, author of Miami: City of the Future, captured the scene: "In Miami you could refuse to take drugs. You could refuse to associate with people who use them. You could even isolate yourself from drugs if you were rich enough. But whatever you did, drugs would be part of your life."
Cocaine's lasting legacies -- a thriving international banking industry, an entrenched drug culture, the durable myths of Miami Vice -- merit consideration in this anniversary year, which is what this two-part special project offers. Next week: a cocaine memoir, the rise of crack, a 25-year body count, the cost of a kilo, a Miami drug map, and more.