The Miami Hotel Where All the Narcos Came to Play
The unbelievable yet true story of the Mutiny, the hotel at the center Miami’s cocaine cowboys heyday—and an inspiration for the film, ‘Scarface.’
It was autumn 1980 in Miami, and Willy Gomez, a tall, thickly bearded twentysomething who looked like a disco conquistador, was working security at the Mutiny at Sailboat Bay, a club and hotel in Coconut Grove, just south of downtown. Outside, a long line snaked by the poolside entrance to the Mutiny Club. If everyone in Miami claimed to know Willy—his gig won him side jobs from VIPs and action from a smorgasbord of chicks—it was because they wanted inside, where the action was.
Gomez, you could say, was living the dream. Save for tonight.
As he came down the stairs from the club to the hotel’s lobby, he heard a commotion.
Coño tu madre! [Fuck your mother!]
Come mierda! [Eat shit!]
Hijo de puta! [Son of a whore!]
Come plomo, maricón! [Eat lead, faggot!]
“Fuck me,” thought Gomez, stifling the urge to piss himself.
Ricardo “Monkey” Morales, a Mutiny regular, was pointing his gun at some other thug. So intense was the vitriol that spit was flying in the air.
“I knew Ricky was a CIA guy—an informant,” Gomez said of Morales. “I knew he was a problem. I knew he was a rat.”
He also knew his .38 Colt revolver was downright Gunsmoke compared with the Monkey’s semiautomatic: “No way I could let him turn on me with that.”
The domino tables of Little Havana echoed with cigar-smoked tales of el Mono (the Monkey) meting out and cheating death: about how once, in broad daylight, he emptied seventeen rounds from a machine gun into another exile; how there was still shrapnel embedded in the busy Miami street where nine years earlier he had walked away from a car bombing that should have at least severed his legs; how Morales, the lucky bastard, later survived a drive-by shooting that nearly blew out his brains by rolling out of his car and regrouping until he could kill his would-be assassin with gunshots to the face.
Morales’s menacing appearance—dead gaze, gorilla-sloped back, huge ears and hands—resembled that of some early hominid you might see recreated in the pages of National Geographic.
Which was seemingly the only publication that hadn’t profiled him. Morales had been featured in Esquire, and cover treatments by both Newsday’s magazine and Harper’s were in the pipeline. The Miami Herald and the Miami News had filing cabinets dedicated to this mythical exile: informant, bomber, drug dealer, assassin, quoter of military histories. Literary agents were calling.
The Mutiny was where Monkey Morales held court, his bloodstream coursing with cocaine, THC, Quaaludes, Valium, alcohol and caffeine.
And two decades of Cuban-American rage.
He always snuck in the back of the hotel and in through the kitchen, where he’d hand Chef Manny—“Manolito!”—choice little briquettes of cocaine. And maybe a lobster or hog snapper that he had personally speared.
So, Willy Gomez, security conquistador, hardly ever crossed paths with this guy—and he was fine with that. But tonight, for whatever reason, Monkey Morales felt the need to go apeshit a couple of yards from the hotel’s front desk.
“Police!” yelled Gomez, hand on his gun. “Call the police.”
But the lobby had completely emptied out, save for the three of them. Music from the club wafted downstairs:
I got to ride, ride like the wind to be free again
“If I blink,” Gomez thought to himself, “this psychopath will kill me.”
He resolved to squeeze the trigger. “Monkey was already dead, as far as I was concerned. I was worried his brains would splatter on the artwork.”
The future flashed before Gomez. Burton Goldberg, the Mutiny’s hard-assed owner, would throw the mother of all shit fits when crime-scene photographers captured the mess in his lobby. He had paid tens of thousands of dollars for Hollywood-caliber set lighting to showcase his art and orchids, micromanaging the scene down to the last lumen. “I hired the guy that lit up the Statue of Liberty in ’seventy-six,” Goldberg would always boast to guests.
Gomez would then have to quit his job, assuming the Mutiny survived the shooting. You didn’t just plug Monkey Morales and go on with your life like nothing happened. Yes, many in Miami who hated Morales would send Gomez drinks an introduce the dapper caballero to their daughters and sisters.
But the Monkey had too many friends in dangerous places—spooks, arms dealers, mercenaries, soldiers of fortune—who would put a retaliatory hit out on his killer, justified circumstances or not. (“Or,” Willy Gomez thought, “if you keep thinking about all this, the Monkey will fucking turn around and kill you himself. Focus!”)
Then the elevator door opened.
“Police!” yelled Gomez, with renewed desperation.
Out walked Rafael Villaverde, Morales’s tablemate. As the scene came into focus through his tinted glasses, the paunchy exile grimaced, bit a knuckle and took hesitating steps forward. Willy Gomez now had his gun at Morales’s head.
Villaverde held out his hand. “No police!” he pleaded, looking at Gomez. “Ricky. Ricky. Hey. Look. Mira...”
Villaverde then carefully walked up to Morales and whispered something.
Gomez was still convinced the Monkey would blow him away with a flick of his wrist. He imagined his head in a puddle of blood. But Morales rapidly tucked his semiautomatic back into his pants.
His rival bolted, but Gomez didn’t put away his revolver.
“Get the fuck out of here, Ricky!” he yelled to Morales, panting, almost hyperventilating. “Try! If you even try to fucking come back...” “You know who you talking to?” shot back Morales, snarling.
“Do. You. Know?”
He pulled back his coat to reveal a giant grenade on his belt. It was practically the size of a Florida avocado.
The Monkey flashed a deranged grin and took his time walking out the front of the Mutiny.
Outside, an oblivious and unruly crowd would likely have formed. Giggling groupies checking the shrubs and walkways for the club’s gilded matchboxes, looking inside for Quaaludes and nose candy.
The air would have been pungent with cigarette smoke, preparty rum, various overpowering perfumes, colognes and hair sprays, high-tide salt water, sweaty rayon, joints.
Ferraris, Porsches, Rollses, Benzes, Maseratis and Lambos pulled up, windows wide-open, blasting Blondie, Donna Summer and “Funkytown.” The Mutiny’s valets were tipped to the cuffs to take their time, hog the curb along South Bayshore Drive and keep the beats pumping.
Opposite the hotel, a marina led out to a bay containing more than one hundred boats, sails flapping, the occasional manatee scraping up against the bows. Giant yachts ferried area regulars—who at times could include names like the Bee Gees and Richard Nixon—to land.
In the shallows, you were bound to find a recently arrived Cuban refugee swatting away mosquitoes with a cigarette, desperate to snag a small shark or ray on a handline. Anything bigger he’d hawk a mile north at the big intersection on US-1, where others from the Mariel boatlift emigration of Cubans that spring and summer were selling fruit and hog trotters.
Abutting this vista were Miami City Hall and the police station. Back across South Bayshore Drive—“Rubberneck Avenue,” wags were now calling it—a scene of intense star watching was taking place outside the Mutiny. Recently spotted:
Mr. Universe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, his head appearing freakishly small atop the boulder that was his midsection. The tiny waitress from Michigan he’d hit on wondered to a girlfriend how she could possibly mount this beast.
Paul Newman, small as a jockey, and Sally Field were in town with star director Sydney Pollack to shoot the film Absence of Malice. Newman drank so much of the Mutiny’s Château Lafite that he passed out and literally had to be carried up to his suite by a hostess. A brooding Burt Reynolds kept a watchful eye on Sally.
Playboy hopefuls visited for casting calls in one of the hotel’s 130 fantasy-themed rooms and its Playboy Video set. Penthouse used the joint, too.
The Eagles had just recorded an album in the studio next door. Waitresses gossiped about which member tipped—and bedded—the best.
You’d see Frankie Valli, in boosting disco heels—not to be confused with Dance Fever host Deney Terrio, who reminded everyone at the Mutiny that, hey, you know, he coached Travolta for Saturday Night Fever.
And “Super Freak”–destined Rick James, traveling with a delegation of coke whores and a croc-skin man purse full of dainty gold utensils for cutting and sniffing lines. It’s true: every other word out of his mouth was “bitch.” “Slick Rick” laid into a waitress who accidentally called him “miss.”
Ted Kennedy, fresh off conceding the Democratic presidential nomination, had often been deep in his cups at the Mutiny, where he hated bumping into Jimmy Carter wingman Hamilton Jordan, who was constantly in Miami to negotiate asylum in Panama for the deposed shah of Iran. Kennedy picked a fight with the club’s DJ, who was helping Julio Iglesias, a Mutiny resident, hype his latest record. You catch all that?
The Doobie Brothers partied hard at the Mutiny, where the joke was they were into way more than just doobies—no: the powdery stuff was what inspired band members and their roadies to mindlessly throw cash down from their windows.
And always wandering the grounds like a lost dog was David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—his mustache and teeth nasty from constantly smoking freebase cocaine with a small blowtorch.
For all the intense people watching at 2951 South Bayshore Drive, however, the true players at the Mutiny had nothing to do with Hollywood or Motown or the Beltway.
They were Miami’s ruling drug lords. With bullets flying everywhere there at all hours of the day, the town was increasingly being called Dodge City. And so these guys were its “cocaine cowboys,” the Latin masterminds of the era’s go-go wonder drug: yeyo, perico, toot, snow, white pony. Cocaine. And the Mutiny was their favorite saloon. It was in this parallel universe that the Mutiny’s free-spending cocaine lords swapped their old-world names (say, Wilfredo Perez del Cayo) for Cubano goodfella handles like Carlene, Redbeard, Coca‑Cola, el Loco, the Boys, Recotado (“Stocky”), Veneno (“Venom”). Weetchie, Chunky, Peloo, Perro (“Dog”), Mungy. Venao (“Deer”), Raspao (“Snow Cone”), the Big Blonde, Super Papi. Chino, Albertico, Kiki.
Even their pets lived extra large.
Kingpin Mario Tabraue had a chimp named Caesar, whom he adorned with a gold-rope necklace holding a fifty-peso gold coin, an eighteen-karat ID bracelet with his name in diamonds and a ladies’ Rolex Presidential. The primate was partial to turtlenecks and a New York baseball cap, and proudly rode shotgun in his owner’s Benz while waving a Cuban cigar.
They’d shuttle to and from Tabraue’s mansion around the corner, where panthers, pythons, raptors and even a toucan roamed the grounds. Tabraue fed live rats to a two-headed snake and an owl he kept in a Plexiglas cage. He would sometimes answer the door with a tarantula peeking out from under his cap.
“Every known narcotic trafficker in Miami would be at the Mutiny,” recalled Diosdado “D. C.” Diaz, a Miami police detective. “You’d see their wives and mistresses there. Their hit men. They’d throw a big celebration every time they brought in a load; they’d send Cristal and Dom to dealers at other tables. I’d follow the bottles and jot down their license plate numbers.”
So vital was the Mutiny for watching the interplay of dealers, informants, celebs and public figures, he says, that authorities were understandably loath to disturb the ecosystem. “Why stir up the pot and scare them all away?” Diaz said.
Indeed, just as Monkey Morales was about to get his brains blown out by the bouncer in the lobby, his tablemate, one of Miami’s biggest cocaine dealers, attempted to bribe D. C. Diaz with a Rolex and an antique World War II–issue gun. However, the kingpin refused to part ways with a silencer-equipped MAC-10 submachine gun that Monkey had lent him and wanted back.
In the very week Morales stared down Gomez, owner Burton Goldberg threw a raucous Halloween bash at the club.
Yes, you could argue Miami was now devolving into a third-world republic that was bound to break off and sink into the Atlantic. But the Mutiny at Sailboat Bay, adorned with lush, carefully lit foliage and stunning women, was raking it in.
And so the woolly-chested Goldberg donned two-inch eye-lashes, a flowing blond wig and a long white gown, and skipped around tapping guests with his wand—a fairy godmother pretending to sprinkle magic pixie dust.
America in the late 1970s and early ’eighties was in a pronounced funk: inflation and unemployment were high; consumer sentiment was in the dumps. But so exceptional was Miami’s cocaine economy that dopers were paying banks to accept suitcases full of cash (while certificates of deposit were yielding 20 percent, on top of your choice of toaster or alarm clock). According to one study from Florida International University in Miami, at least one-third of the city’s economic output was derived from narcotics at the time.
So much hot money was sloshing around Miami that the Mutiny was selling more bottles of Dom Pérignon than any other establishment on the planet, according to the bubbly’s distributor, whose executives visited in disbelief at the turn of the decade. They heard right: a suite at the hotel was converted into a giant walk-in cooler; beautiful women would ooh and ahh at tabletop cascades of bubbly in stacks of flutes; dopers bought bottles for the house when their loads came in and management often flew out the Mutiny’s private plane at the last minute to procure even more from other cities.
Internationally wanted hit men and mercenaries chilled at the
Mutiny. Frequent visitors kept their guns tucked in the cushions, and cases of cash and cocaine in their suites. Bullets flew. Thugs were nabbed. Refugees snuck in. Cops were bribed. Dopers were recorded. Pilots were hired. Contracts were placed. Plots were hatched.
You might recognize this backdrop as the Babylon Club in the movie Scarface, whose creators, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma, stayed at the Mutiny and sought permission to film there. In Stone’s screenplay, he accidentally referenced the Mutiny Club; stars Al Pacino, Steven Bauer and other supporting cast checked in at the hotel. Miami Vice stars were also gravitationally pulled to the Mutiny.
Don Johnson partied there, and Philip Michael Thomas moved in with his family and insisted on parking his purple imitation Ferrari out front on the curb. The hit show’s creators studied agents and kingpins at the Mutiny; one cooperating drug lord even finagled his way onto two episodes.
The Miami of the Mutiny’s heyday abounded with the surreal. So much marijuana was getting confiscated in the waters around South Florida that the Florida Power & Light Company was opportunistically burning tons of it to run its generators: 732 pounds of pot could replace a barrel of crude. Take that, energy crisis!
Area McDonald’s restaurants were running out of their tiny spoon-tipped coffee stirrers—they were perfect, it turned out, for portioning and sniffing cocaine. Mutiny dopers wore bronzed ones around their necks to advertise how far they’d come.
Burger King, meanwhile, loaned the overwhelmed county morgue a refrigerated truck. Bodies were turning up in gator-infested canals; in duffel bags alongside the turnpike; bobbing out of drums, bins and shopping carts in marinas along Biscayne Bay.
Machine-gun fire rained over the parking lot of the city’s busiest mall.
All of which would soon land Miami on the cover of Time magazine as “Paradise Lost.”
The Mutiny stood out as a lush oasis within this apocalypse. The Magic City was now the planet’s cocaine entrepôt—its Federal Reserve branch was showing a five-billion-dollar cash surplus—and so this hotel and club became the place south of Studio 54 to blow illegal tender.
The club’s seventy-five-dollar metal membership card, embossed with the Mutiny’s winking pirate logo, got you in the door and certainly came in handy for cutting and snorting lines.
But it was cash—lots and lots of it—that got you everything else:
Cases of 150-dollar-a-bottle Dom Pérignon emptied into your hot tub? Right away!
A private jet for jaunts to the islands, stocked with Mutiny girls, a five-man crew and stone crab claws on dry ice? No sweat.
Your machine guns, bullets and silencers discreetly locked in a chest? Sin problema. Plus, a hostess would hide your piece in her skirt if the cops showed up, while another Mutiny girl was adept at clicking her stilettos against guys on the dance floor to check for ankle holsters.
“We couldn’t just walk into the Mutiny with a cheap rubber watch,” said Wayne Black, the undercover cop who would borrow a Rolex from the police evidence locker before going there. “You’d be buying Dom with the bad guys. You owned a Pinto but drove home a Jag. ‘Daddy,’ your kid would say, ‘the neighbors say you sell drugs.’”
None of which would ever make the press release that the otherwise media-shy Mutiny felt the need to put out to start 1981, the year when Miami became America’s murder capital.
THE MOST UNUSUAL HOTEL IN THE COUNTRY
Coconut Grove, Fla.
A hotel room is a hotel room is a hotel room.
This variation of the noted Gertrude Stein quotation is a frequent complaint of jaded travelers who are convinced that all hotel rooms look alike.
One hotel, located just 15 minutes south of Miami—the Hotel Mutiny at Sailboat Bay in Coconut Grove—is proof, in the words of Ira Gershwin, that “it ain’t necessarily so.”
Adapted from Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Parties and Plotted to Control Miami by Roben Farzad, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Roben Farzad.