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The ultimate makeover: how Miami went chic

The opening of the 'Miami Vice' movie showcases a city revamped from the 1980s TV show.

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It was the iconic 1980s cop show, and it showed Miami as the capital of cool. It oozed glitz and glamour. Fast boats and flashy cars were everywhere. "Miami Vice" had it all.

Too bad the city itself back then had a murder rate more than quadruple the national average. Tourism revenue was at rock bottom. "Sleepy metropolis" and "haven for retirees" were common descriptions.

But when "Miami Vice" was canceled, a funny thing happened to the real Miami: It started to look more and more like the TV show.

Today, as the movie version of "Miami Vice" plays in theaters nationwide, the city is a hub for big business, high fashion, and global tourism. Yes, it oozes glitz and glamour.

Just don't expect any Miamians to roll up their suit-jacket sleeves anymore, à la Don Johnson.

"It was the series that, inspired by Miami, reshaped Miami," says Chuck Strouse, editor of the Miami New Times, a weekly newspaper. "It shaped national and international thinking on the city and continued to do so for years afterwards."

Twenty-two years ago, when linen-suited detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs first appeared on screen, Miami had fallen on hard times. The biggest problems in the '80s and early '90s were crime, drugs, and poverty. At least nine tourists were killed during robberies. And some of Colombia's most notorious drug cartels conducted business through Miami – which included Fabio Ochoa, whose $1 billion-a-month operation allowed him to carpet his stables and wash down his horses with whiskey.

"The traffickers were making more money than they knew what to do with," says Guy Lewis, a former US attorney in Miami who prosecuted several big names from the feuding Medellin and Cali cartels. "They were driving round in their Ferraris and Porsches, walking into banks with duffel bags stuffed with cash.... But there was no Crockett and Tubbs in a Ferrari chasing the bad guys."

Stung by the bad publicity, Miami's police and politicians launched a blitz on crime. Efforts were afoot at the federal level, too: The vice president at the time, George H.W. Bush, set up a task force on drug trafficking, and the feds pumped in "tons of money," Mr. Lewis notes.

Many of the drugs barons in the city fled or were arrested. While even today the trade still flourishes, those who run it are less conspicuous.


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