On a balmy summer night in July 1985, during the height of the Miami Vice popularity, eight men dressed in police uniforms stormed a boat on the Miami River, surprising six men who were unloading several millions dollars worth of cocaine.
At first, it appeared to be a police raid, but when one of the officers shouted, “kill ‘em”, the cocaine traffickers on the boat knew it was something more sinister and began jumping overboard.
The men raiding the boat did not go after the men jumping overboard. They were not interested in making arrests. They were solely interested in the cocaine – 350 kilos in all – with a street value of $9 million.
The following morning, the bloated bodies of three men were found floating in the river behind Jones Boat Yard. The other three had managed to swim to shore.
When police fished the bodies out of the water, they discovered that each of the men had been carrying between $800 to $1,000 in large bills in their pockets. They were all dressed in designer jeans and wore jewelry. They each had guns tucked in their waistbands.
It was an obvious drug rip-off gone bad
At first, investigators believed police impersonators were to blame for the rip-off, which was not a rare occurrence at a time when drug rip-offs were taking place almost daily, and police uniforms and equipment could be purchased over the counter at a number of police stores throughout Miami.
But it wasn’t long before investigators determined that these were real cops who had committed the rip-off. Real cops who had committed the murders.
Real cops who would go down in history as the Miami River Cops – or as they liked to call themselves, “The Enterprise” – the most notorious gang of corrupt cops ever to don the badge in Miami.
Within a month after the bodies were found floating in the river, ten Miami police officers were being investigated. By the end of the year, five cops had been arrested.
By the time it was all over, more than 100 cops has been arrested, fired, suspended or reprimanded for corruption, coercion and cocaine rip-offs unveiled during the Miami River Cops investigation, including 20 who were convicted and sent to prison.
Today, the Miami River Cops have all been released from prison, including two that became fugitives in 1987 and were not apprehended until 1994.
At least one was sent back to prison after committing a string of armed robberies in 2003.
And another became a chef since his release although it is not clear where he is working now. And the others have maintained a low profile since their release.
“I have not heard from these guys in years,” said Alex Alvarez, a Miami attorney who was a narcotics detective for the Miami-Dade Police Department at the time (back when it was Metro-Dade) .
As part of the task force called Centac 26, Alvarez became the lead investigator in the Miami River Cop case. He spent so many hours in court testifying against the cops, that he ended up enrolling in law school and becoming an attorney.
“I was offended when I learned that they were real cops,” he said. “It was a terrible time to be a cop. They made us all look bad.”
The Miami River Cops case marked the end of the most violent and vicious era in the history of Miami
It was an era that began with Colombian cocaine cowboys shooting it out on the streets of Miami in 1979. And then intensified the following year with an inner-city riot and the Mariel boatlift. And saw its peak in 1982 when Miami became the Murder Capital of the World for the second year in a row.
This was the era of Scarface. Miami Vice. An era when everybody was making money off the cocaine trade, whether you were directly involved or not.
“Even the people at the bottom rung of the business were making about $120,000 a year,” said Alfred Spellman, who along with Billy Corben, produced the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. “These were the people who would get paid $10,000 to unload a boat filled with cocaine. They would then spend that money in restaurants and on clothes and on cars. Everybody was making money off cocaine at the time.”
Because of this dramatic rise in crime and violence, the Miami Police Department went on a hiring spree, almost doubling the number of officers to meet the increasing demands of the city.
And in the process, they lowered their standards.
As a result, many of the new officers turned out to be criminals, including several who were convicted of ordering execution style murders.
And they became rich beyond their dreams, splurging for houses, sports cars, exotic vacations and mistresses.
But after an initial mistrial, many ended up so broke, they were forced to seek out court-appointed lawyers.
Rodolfo “Rudy” Arias – who was honored for “Officer of the Month” a month prior to the Miami River incident went into the witness protection plan after testifying against fellow cops, but then got bored after living in Louisiana.
He ended up serving three-and-a-half years, becoming a chef upon his release.
Armando “Scarface” Garcia, who ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, was apprehended in Cali, Colombia in 1994 after seven years on the run. He was released in 2006, according to federal prison records.
Victor Zapata, who also became a fugitive, was nabbed in Puerto Rico a month after Garcia’s capture. He was also released from prison in 2006.
And Ricardo Aleman, who had been released from prison in 1992, was sent back to prison after robbing four banks in 2003.
The rest of the officers were released during the 1990s, most of them serving only a portion of the sentences that were handed to them.
A basic search through the Miami-Dade court system shows that none have had any run-ins with the law down here since their release, with the exception of Aleman.
Meanwhile, Alvarez, the man who spearheaded the investigation, has put the case long behind him.
“Miami has changed so much since then,” he said. “The drugs are still here but it’s not so obvious as it was back then.”