Cocaine Cowboys chronicles the development of the illegal drug trade in Miami during the 1970s and 1980s with interviews of both law enforcement and organized crime leaders, in addition to news footage from the era. The film reveals that in the 1960s and early 1970s, marijuana was the primary import drug into the region. During the 1970s, marijuana imports were replaced by the much more lucrative cocaine imports. Drug importers reveal several of the different methods used to import the drugs into Florida. The primary methods used to import the narcotics were by boat or by air. The drug importers also reveal the complexity of their methods of importation. The logistics involved with the importation included the purchase and financing of legitimate businesses to provide cover for illegal operations, the use of sophisticated electronic homing devices, and other elaborate transportation schemes. The distribution networks were also highly elaborate, and many people were involved locally and nationally in the consumption of the imported cocaine. Importers reveal that condominiums were purchased near particular ocean waterways to provide a monitoring post for Coast Guard and local police patrol boats. Importers reveal the use of high-tech radio monitoring equipment used to monitor the radio frequencies of Federal, State, and local authorities in order to warn incoming boats and airplanes.
The film reveals that much of the economic growth which took place in Miami during this time period was a benefit of the drug trade. As members of the drug trade made immense amounts of money, this money flowed in large amounts into legitimate businesses. As a result, drug money indirectly financed the construction of many of the modern high-rise buildings in southern Florida. Later, when law enforcement pressure drove many major players out of the picture, many high-end stores and businesses closed because of plummeting sales.