Fishing for Square Grouper

A good number of the men I’ve known of my father’s generation—say those born between 1950 and 1960, who lived in Florida during the early-’70s—were involved in some way to the drug trafficking industry that was incredibly prevalent during the time prior to the War on Drugs. Think Jimmy Buffet. During that time, a good portion of the country’s marijuana made its way from Central and South America or the Caribbean by way of Miami and the Everglades.

Billy Corben’s new documentary gets its title from the term used by Florida smugglers to denote a bail of marijuana—a “square grouper.” Square Grooper: the Godfathers of Ganja is a hilarious and illuminating movie, a look into three very different slices of South Florida smuggling history: the Ethiopian Coptic Zion Church, the Black Tuna Gang and the virtually the entire population of Everglades City.

Broken into those three sections, the documentary paints a colorful picture of the wide array of people who found themselves caught up in the cash craze of importing marijuana, either from Jamaica in the Coptic’s case, or from Columbia in the Black Tuna Gang and Everglades City cases.

After a very public fight against the law, the members of the Ethiopian Coptic Zion Church (ECZC) was accused and found guilty of smuggling an absolutely staggering amount of marijuana into the country during the early ’70s.

The ECZC sprung from Rastafari movements in Jamaica and incorporated the teachings of Marcus Garvey. The church, which claimed that marijuana was crucial to the practice of their religion, was recognized as a legitimate religion by the Supreme Court and attempted to operate out of a massive compound on Star Island in Miami under the same protections granted to Native Americans’ use of peyote. The film includes interviews with most of the “Brothers” from the ECZC, who are some of the most entertaining and impressively-bearded men I’ve ever seen. Archival footage of the ECZC shows very young children toking on enormous spliffs, as well as footage of enormous amounts of marijuana being imported from Jamaica. The section ends with their prison sentences, which were respectable.

The second section involved the Black Tuna Gang, a group of young men who were made examples of after being raided for smuggling. The Black Tuna Gang’s story is a sad one, of broken families, corruption, lies and ruthless sentencing. Several retired DEA and FBI agents make appearances wearing dark glasses and making themselves look overfed and inhumane. It made for a little bit of a bummer, after the Coptic section’s rather gaff-heaviness.

The documentary closed with the story of Everglades City. Not just a few smugglers in Everglades City, but the whole town. Everglades City at the time was a town of a little over 500 people, with about “four names in the phone book.” Everyone was related in some way and everyone knew each other.

After increased fishing regulations put a stranglehold on Everglades City’s main industry, the town began taking things into their own hands. Corben has gathered interviews with the townspeople that are just incredibly funny. Eventually, of course, the law caught on and came down on the town town. Something like 90% of the male citizens were arrested. After the raid, it was a good place to be a single guy, one subject says. It was a town of nothing but women.

One thread that runs throughout the film is the unfair severity of punishments for non-violent crimes such as drug possession or trafficking. Some of the very candid and kind seeming individuals in the film served upwards of 30 years in prison for a crime that between 40 and 55 percent American citizens have committed, depending on what surveys you look at. What are we to make of a country whose laws make criminals out of a good portion of its populace?

Most of these pictures are from Square Grouper’s Flickr account. See more here:

Square Grouper

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