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'Scarface' Was Inspired by This Lavish, Coke-Fueled Hotel

The de-facto headquarters for Miami's cocaine trade was a dangerous, opulent place where the underworld mixed it up with celebrities.

Seth Ferranti

Seth Ferranti

The Mutiny Hotel was a Playboy Mansion for Miami that brought drug lords, killers, and CIA affiliates together with Jacqueline Onassis, Led Zeppelin, and Miami Dolphins players. It first opened its doors in 1969, just south of downtown Miami in Coconut Grove and was home to the exclusive, members-only Mutiny Club. The club's clientele included Latin America's "nouveau riche" and the infamous Cocaine Cowboys, who announced their presence to the world in 1979's Dadeland Mall Massacre. In the late 70s, it was one of the most desirable and high-class destinations on the planet, rivaling the stature of Studio 54. But by 1984, with law enforcement pressure increasing, the den was sold for almost $17 million.

In a new book, Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami, Harvard Business School graduate and NPR One's Full Disclosure host Roben Farzad explores the history of a hotel that was immortalized—in spirit—by Scarface. VICE talked to Farzad by phone to find out why it was so hard for cops to infiltrate the Mutiny, how the celebrities and criminals interacted at the hotel, and how it all came to an ignoble end.

VICE: When did you first find out about the Mutiny Hotel, and why did you decide to write a book about it?
Roben Farzad:
It found me just weeks before I left to go off to college in '94. And without making myself sound totally ridiculous and flakey, I'll tell you that I was haunted by what I saw. I'm not given to phantasmagoria or the supernatural, but this place and its characters haunted the heck out of me as I went up north to school. In my times of homesickness, I'd think back to the hotel and go research it in the library or make calls. I always had a folder or notes and over the years, 23 and counting. It just kept building into something. Finally, I was at a crossroads where I had to put a book proposal together. It was kind of now or never.

Who did you talk to and how did you gain access to them?
I put the word out in Miami that I was barking up this tree and once you get a very kind of low-level, admittedly small player at the club, they put in a good word. But it takes time. There was a breakthrough when one of the ex-gangsters who got out of prison, and has a restaurant in Miami Beach, was introduced to me. I just lobbied and lobbied and lobbied... Until they realized that one, the statute of limitation is not a consideration unless you killed somebody. And two, I was discreet and wanted the passion of this story to show up. Many people didn't want to talk.

Cocaine dealer Nelson Aguilar, who was tight with Rick James and the Miami Dolphins

How did the Cocaine Cowboys documentary help.
Those guys wrote the intro for my book. Billy [Corben] and Alfred [Spellman] are friends. We grew up in the same part of Miami. I profiled them when I was at Business Week. Their film really opened the floodgates to a renaissance of interest in this whole era. Those guys really hit something big. While I was doing my research, I reached out to them. I told Alfred, 'I'm Captain Ahab and this is the whale I'm pursuing,' and he's like tell me how I can help you.

What surprised you the most?
From the outside, growing up and listening to Nancy Reagan, George Bush, and the drug task force, you'd think that all these cocaine dealers were like Tony Montana. But one of the biggest cocaine kingpins in Miami history, who's been smoking freebase for half his life, can play the piano so beautifully. He can draw on lessons from anthropology, the CIA, sociology, politics, and the economy.

You see sides and textures of all these people who you were led to believe were just coke-headed monsters. But it works both ways. They wanted nothing to do with the film Scarface when it was filmed in 82 and 83 in Miami. But now that Scarface has kind of created a life of its own, been quoted on Sports Center, and been re-released a thousand times, a lot of these guys want to come forward and say, "You know what, I think that was based on me, man."

Nelson Aguilar's Mutiny Club card
Nelson Aguilar's Mutiny Club chain

How hard was it for law enforcement to infiltrate the Mutiny?
Exceedingly hard. A cop told me that these guys were snorting more up their nose in one night then he made in a year, even with overtime. When you have that kind of cash, you can corrupt cops and even buy judges. In pre-communist Cuba, everything was for sale. It was a kleptocracy. You could buy any justice. You could buy yourself out of a hit and run or a rape charge, and that kind of spirit carried into the Mutiny. The Miami Police Department had a horrific time with recruitment and retention because you had so many prominent cops, law enforcement, and justice officials who were dirty. They saw the money and they couldn't resist it.

What did it mean it to be seen at a place like the Mutiny?
The flashiness was the Cubans and the gringo hangers-on. The Colombians, when they did go to the Mutiny, were not flashy people. They were much more businesslike and it was life or death for them. Dealers would throw a lot of cash around and make it abundantly clear to everybody that money was no object. They'd have a shit ton of Dom Pérignon and Perrier-Jouët on the table. Two of the old-school dopers would always order Lafite Rothschild, the very expensive wine from years prior to the Cuban Revolution. They'd pay cash, like $1,200 a bottle, and tip the waiter another $200.

The most ostentatious thing they could do was just order cases and cases of Dom Pérignon and pour it into a hot tub and jump in naked with groupies. It was the most democratizing thing—cash. A rags to riches Cuban or Venezuelan—who would not get time of day at this exclusive club—got in, because once you're a coke kingpin, once you have that kind of money, all sorts of women would sleep with you, all sorts of celebs would party with you. These guys rubbed shoulders with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Fleetwood Mac, The Cars, and more. That cash was the ultimate equalizer.

Police seize cash.

Can you tell me about a colorful character you encountered in writing the book?
Ricardo "Monkey" Morales haunted many people in Miami. He's haunted prosecutors, law enforcement people. He was the one human embodiment of everything that has gone wrong between the US and Cuba. He was like the lost spy wandering around here. The book could have been called "Monkey in Miami" if he stuck around long enough. He was kind of [on] this death mission, a suicide mission by 1982. Tormented privately, he was just a case of PTSD and cocaine and violence and living on the edge gone horribly wrong. But there were lots of men in Miami like this, people who were terribly homesick for their Cuba and never got to go back and sublimated their PTSD and their sadness into really unbelievable resumes.

How did the celebrities, musicians, drug lords, informants, and cops all interact at the Mutiny?
Between the cops and the drug lords, it was kind of treated as a free-trade zone. We know why you're here, you know why we're here, let's not create a scene here. If you've ever seen The Wire, where one guys drives past the cops and he kind of waves at them, that's what it was like. The criminals held nothing personal against those cops. The cops' job was to chase them. The criminal's job was to evade them and corrupt them.

If you're a kingpin at this club and you see Stevie Nicks walk in, you see Led Zeppelin walk in, you know, some of the biggest personalities at this place, you don't want to go fawning like a little kid at a Beatles concert. You want to be like, I'll send a bottle to his table. It was very much everybody understood why everybody else was there. For the most part, they didn't shoot at each other there or bust one another there, and that lasted until Miami became this paroxysm, this explosion of murder and bloodlust.

A room at the Mutiny

How did law enforcement finally put the Mutiny Hotel and its criminal clientele out of business?
After 1981, the cops told the owner, Listen, we've had enough of this, you're urged to sell. The owner consulted with his astrologer and sold it for a cool $17 million dollars. For the most part, the murders stayed out of the Mutiny until the story of Margarita

Who was she?
She was a gorgeous Dominican Mutiny girl who was murdered by a very crazed cocaine cowboy/serial killer. He did animal sacrifices and seduced Margarita, convincing her that he could get her into movies. They found Margarita in a Mutiny blanket in the Keys. That's when a lot of people at the Club knew this was life and death and not just fun and games anymore.

By the time the Mariel boatlift refugees infiltrated the place, there were gunfights happening upstairs. That cleared it out and the most prolific staffers at the Mutiny went off and founded clubs of their own. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas and the other celebrities started showing up at these places [instead]. By then, the Mutiny was sold and it spiraled into insolvency.

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.

Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami is available on October 17 from Bantam Press

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.