Why is South Florida such a magnet for criminals?” muses Jorge Zamanillo. Like most Miamians, it’s a question he has long pondered. Over the past few months, however, he has come up with a few solid answers as a curator with the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, documenting 100 years of local mayhem for the museum’s new “Crime in Miami” exhibition. Consisting of archival photographs, video clips and even a vintage prisoner’s uniform on loan from the Miami-Dade Police Department (yes, inmates really did once wear black and white striped outfits), Zamanillo’s handiwork is illuminating. There’s an eerie symmetry in seeing images of both Prohibition-era rumrunners, slipping in from the Bahamas and quietly cruising up the Miami River, as well as the cocaine cowboys of the ’80s, winging in from Colombia to land their planes on secluded Everglades airstrips. How to explain crime’s continuity here?
Blame geography. “For 100 years this has been an easy coastline for people to get in and out of,” Zamanillo says. “There are still vast areas of emptiness in the Everglades.”
Yet the inviting physical terrain doesn’t fully speak to this area’s longstanding endemic civic corruption. Or an almost pathological determination on the part of local officials to confer sainthood on any con man willing to pose as a philanthropist. To dramatize this, one hardly needs to replay the recent criminal indictments of Miami City Commissioners Angel Gonzalez and Michelle Spence-Jones. Instead, simply take a look at the museum exhibition’s Miami booking photos of Al Capone, who kept a home on Star Island to escape those chilly Chicago winters. Miami Beach’s then-mayor, J.N. Lummus, may have publicly decried Capone’s 1927 arrival. But that didn’t stop Lummus from personally acting as the gangster’s real estate agent.
Blame our age. “We’re a young city,” Zamanillo says. “In some ways, Miami is still a teenager.” Though that too feels like an unsatisfactory way to make sense of a community where criminality often seems as much a part of the landscape as palm trees. As John Rothchild writes in the 2000 edition of his seminal South Florida history, Up for Grabs, the “Miami needs time to grow up” excuse is as old as local crime itself: “The same ‘immature’ Miami rolled out the red carpet for Al Capone in the 1920s, became a playground for retired mobsters in the 1940s, was the target of a Senate crime committee in the 1950s, allowed bookies to operate openly in the lobbies of beachfront hotels in the 1960s, produced the Watergate burglars in the 1970s, embraced the drug trade in the 1980s and hosted the corruption epidemic of the 1990s. If crime is a sign of immaturity, then judging by its rap sheet, Miami is the true fountain of youth.”
So, blame ourselves? That may not be a crowd-pleasing assessment, but it’s one Zamanillo is more than willing to consider. He points to his own childhood. Now 41, he grew up in Little Havana when criminal violence between various Cuban-exile factions was all part of the background scenery. “There was a pipe bomb going off every week. It was expected,” he recalls of an era that journalist Calvin Trillin wryly described as marked by “some political bombings and some shootings between outfits that were, depending on your point of view, either running drugs to raise money for fighting Fidel or using the fight against Fidel as a cover for running drugs.”
Either way, by 1981 Miami had the highest murder rate in the country, with 621 killings. For Zamanillo, however, times were never better. His father was a once-struggling sculptor who had discovered a lucrative new market for his ornately fashioned statues of Santería saints. “It was a power thing for these drug smugglers; they thought the saints would keep them from getting caught. They’d create these elaborate thrones for them right inside their living rooms.” On weekends, Zamanillo would lend a hand to his dad, helping to deliver these seven-foot-tall statues to their new homes. As for this foreboding clientele’s line of work, “I knew it was wrong, but when you’re 10 years old and you see all the adults doing it, it just becomes normal.” With a chuckle, he adds, “The ’80s were the only time my family was middleclass. If your dad is a sculptor, you’re not going to be well-off. But suddenly he doubled his business! We had all the extras the other kids had.”
By the decade’s end, though, business had dried up—many of their once flush customers were now in jail. In their wake were shattered families and far too many funerals. Zamanillo says it’s a lesson he has carried with him since.
“I hope this exhibition provides a reality check. There’s a new fascination with crime in Miami again,” he continues, citing the impressive ratings for Miami-set TV shows like Dexter, Burn Notice and CSI: Miami. “But even the most violent depictions still add a layer of ‘coolness’ to it all. Look at Scarface: You’ve got little kids who want to be just like Al Pacino’s character. But real crime isn’t glamorous. There’s a human cost. I’d like that kid with the Scarface poster to get a sense of the real damage involved.”
TOP IMAGE: City of Miami police investigator with stolen jewelry recovered in 1976
BOTTOM IMAGE: 1930's bank robber John Dillinger's local wanted poster