THE YEAR OF DANGEROUS DAYS
Riots, Refugees, and Cocaine in Miami 1980
By Nicholas Griffin
In the mid-1950s, LeRoy Collins, the governor of Florida, looked to the north for investments to bolster the state’s booming economy, which, he claimed, rested on the “three sturdy legs” of tourism, industry and agriculture. “All three must grow and thrive together,” he said, “or none can survive.” A quarter-century later, the United States economy was in a deep recession, and Miami’s first Latino mayor, Maurice Ferré, was looking not north but to South and Latin America to invigorate his city. To realize his vision, Miami would have to get through the tumultuous year of 1980, when three unstable legs threatened its existence: a flood of cocaine and narco dollars that sent violent crime skyrocketing, an unprecedented wave of immigration courtesy of Fidel Castro, and deadly rioting and civil unrest ignited by the police killing of an unarmed black man. Such is the premise of Nicholas Griffin’s utterly absorbing “The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees, and Cocaine in Miami 1980.”
Griffin begins his first chapter in December 1979, when Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old insurance salesman and former Marine, was beaten into a coma by white police officers. Edna Buchanan, a legendary crime reporter at The Miami Herald, became suspicious of police reports stating that McDuffie’s injuries were caused by his crashing his motorcycle while being pursued by the police. Four days later, McDuffie was taken off life support, and Buchanan’s reporting brought her into the orbit of Capt. Marshall Frank, who, as head of the county homicide bureau, was tasked with investigating McDuffie’s death. Dade County’s rising star Janet Reno, Florida’s first woman to serve as a state attorney, prosecuted five officers in a trial that was moved to Tampa. But an all-white, all-male jury acquitted four of the defendants in less than three hours (the fifth was acquitted on a directed verdict before the case went to the jury), setting off the worst race riots in Miami’s history. The buildup to the McDuffie trial and the incendiary response to the verdicts form the backdrop of Griffin’s deeply researched narrative.
There is never a dull moment in “The Year of Dangerous Days,” and Griffin adroitly captures the intrigue and depravity of South Florida at the time. During a period of severe inflation, when major cities were running deficits, Miami’s unending flow of Colombian cocaine, coupled with a plethora of banks that “welcomed drug dollars with few questions,” created a $7 billion cash surplus. “Money doesn’t know that it comes from cocaine,” Mayor Ferré said. “It’s terrible, it’s illegal and it’s Miami’s salvation.”
Griffin has no shortage of fascinating characters to work with. There are nonchalant Colombian hit men like Anibal Jaramillo, who killed in broad daylight and believed that he could buy his way out of legal trouble (“If you had money for a good lawyer, you could effectively evade the law”). And there’s a suave, multimillionaire money launderer, Isaac Kattan, who eventually appears on the radar of Operation Greenback, a multiagency task force that included D.E.A., I.R.S., F.B.I. and customs agents targeting drug trafficking.
Yet it’s Griffin’s account of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when the Cuban president Fidel Castro agreed to allow more than 125,000 Cubans to emigrate to the United States, that is most startling, considering that the majority of the refugees were absorbed into Miami’s Cuban community. Castro used the opportunity to empty prisons and mental hospitals, forcing convicted criminals and troublemakers onto small boats bound for Miami. Radio Havana gloated: “The United States has always wanted to pick the best brains of our people — so they can pick up also the bums.”
“If 1980 was a diagnostic test for America, Miami was the biopsy,” Griffin writes. Mayor Ferré not only survived the confluence of forces bearing down on his city, he thrived, serving six terms, from 1973 to 1985. On the national front, President Jimmy Carter was not so fortunate. In his campaign for a second term, he got swept away in a riptide of crises, including those that Miami endured in 1980, leading to a landslide win for his opponent, Ronald Reagan. It’s impossible to read Griffin’s timely and searing account without thinking about its implications for our current moment — one of mounting social unrest over immigration and racism. As Carter’s domestic adviser would later write, “It is difficult to conjure up a more catastrophic final year in any American president’s term of office than 1980, Carter’s last year in the White House.”