La Cosa Nuestra

The war on sexual orientation reveals the organization and structure of the Take Back Miami-Dade political family

They're angry, tough, resentful, good Christians, flush with family values, and full of loathing for Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. They are zealous and perhaps, according to detractors, a little paranoid. They also may soon be running this town.

Their public presence is Take Back Miami-Dade, a political coalition dedicated to destroying the county ordinance that outlaws sexual orientation-based discrimination in the areas of housing, finance, and public accommodations. This family represents a historic alliance of two groups formerly at great odds: Cuban Americans still enraged at Reno over the Elian affair, and Bible-thumping black Baptist ministers still enraged at the Devil. To be fair, this convergence was partially responsible for Miami's new Civilian Investigative Panel, designed to put homicidal cops in check. The organization has been able to amplify its influence via mass media, including radio and the monthly El Nuevo Patria (The New Fatherland). The recent referendum campaign revealed that it now has full control of one AM radio station, La Poderosa WWFE-AM (670), which has provided it with almost unlimited air time. It owes much of its success to the brute force of its rhetoric.

The group has had several recent setbacks, however. In August state authorities arrested four Take Back operatives, including one capo and one minor, on various felony charges related to petition fraud. They are awaiting trial, and with the exception of the minor, face up to three years in prison. On September 10 Take Back narrowly lost a referendum to repeal the anti-discrimination ordinance, 53 to 47 percent.

But this organization is not going away. In fact last week's election, troubled by Florida's peculiar penchant for voting machines that misfunction, has emboldened its leaders to expand their aims. Alleging that systematic fraud cost them victory, the family is demanding that Supervisor of Elections David Leahy be removed along with millions of dollars of new computerized voting machines. Next they want the head of Penelas, as well as those of other enemies who opposed their repeal effort: Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, and all the editors of the Miami Herald. In the words of underboss Eladio José Armesto, their current motive is to end "the corrupt political establishment that is controlling county hall, pandering to homosexualist extremists who are nothing but grown-up crybabies, who are trying to disguise themselves as victims of discrimination when indeed their discrimination is a total hoax."

1. David Caton, Capo di Tutti Capi? The extent and nature of Caton's contacts with Take Back Miami-Dade are uncertain. May only provide monetary and moral support. (But he may be the boss of bosses.) As a leader of Take Back Tampa, Caton, age 46, led a successful drive in 1992 to overturn a municipal law prohibiting sexual orientation-based discrimination. But the Florida Supreme Court later annulled the vote in light of evidence the group had submitted referendum petitions with invalid signatures. A local court threw out a similar question before a 1995 vote owing to problematic wording. Caton is president of the nonprofit Florida Family Association, whose purpose is to "educate people on what they can do to defend, protect, and promote traditional Biblical values." For tax year 2000 the FFA reported $284,316 in revenue. Of the proceeds $64,200, or 22 percent, went to Caton's salary.

FFA is a faithful financer and supplier of the Miami group. Year 2000 campaign treasurer's reports indicate in-kind contributions totaling $2000 in the form of pens, clipboards, photocopies, and ink. FFA contributed a $500 check this past May. More recent records were not available. (Take Back Miami-Dade reported no activity in its account in 2001.)

Gay-rights proponents suspect Caton may have at least spiritual ties to the new director of Florida's scandalized Department of Children and Families, Jerry Regier. Regier insists he has broken with the Family Research Council, a close ally of FFA parent the American Family Association; and with the Coalition on Revival, whose Website says Regier endorsed a 1999 document stating: "We affirm that repentant homosexuals who, recognizing the reality of their sin, call upon Jesus Christ for his salvation ... and become born again are saved from eternal judgment." No specific relationship between Regier and the Miami family is known. Take Back consiglieriRosa Armesto, however (see below), is employed by the DCF.

2. Eladio Armesto-Garcia, Don. The 65-year-old Armesto-Garcia has avoided the limelight since July, when state prosecutors charged his youngest daughter Maytee, a Community Council 12 member, with putting a false address on her candidate certification form. Authorities targeted Don Eladio last year for privately discussing a zoning case with Angel Gonzalez (now a Miami commissioner) while they were members of the City of Miami's Code Enforcement Board. But the don beat the rap. Has settled into a behind-the-scenes role advising his two older children, Eladio José and Rosa.

3. Eladio José Armesto, Underboss. The 45-year-old Armesto has served as Take Back Miami-Dade's communications director since its 1998 inception. Also an officer of the small but vocal Democratic League of Dade County, he has criticized Republican President George W. Bush's war on terrorism. Armesto, however, has adapted the basic concept of the Bush Doctrine into what might be called the Armesto Doctrine: There is no distinction between homosexuals and those who harbor them, that is, homosexualists. Moreover, homosexualist politicians and officials who commit electoral fraud to protect gays and lesbians are more dangerous than any al Qaeda thug. Denouncing these foes on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, Armesto told a Channel 51 reporter: "America will wake up on September 11 more united than ever to combat not just terrorists who kill persons and destroy buildings but also the terrorists who kill the human spirit." The next night he expounded alongside host Matias Farias at the La Poderosa studio. "The national security of the United States is at stake here," Armesto proclaimed. "The legitimacy of a government falls when its population doesn't have a way to prove who has been elected or how," he added, referring to Florida's new computerized voting machines. "Those who commit this type of fraud," he continued, "are much more frightening than any terrorist who destroys a building or kills a citizen, because what they are undermining is not a building or human being but the institutions of an entire nation."

Armesto's public comments suggest he has well-placed informants inside the Miami-Dade Department of Elections. Four days before the vote he announced that Supervisor of Elections David Leahy was preparing systematic voter fraud in order to defeat the Take Back campaign. "They said we were crazy," Armesto fumed after the September 10 election-day debacle. "Well, now it has turned out that the crazies have become prophets in this county."

Apparently an admirer of the late Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco -- godfather to the modern family-values movement -- Armesto sees a parallel between the old international communists and today's homosexualist network, which landed one of his capos and three soldiers in jail. "I was going to ask the caller," Armesto began on a recent late-night appearance on La Poderosa, "if he didn't see a parallel between the international brigades that the communists imported into Spain to fight the native Spaniards and impose communism in Spain, and the one thousand homosexualist troops brought in from different parts of the U.S. by the group headed by Alex Penelas, Mayor Manny Diaz, and Mayor Raul Martinez to impose on this community a homosexualist political agenda totally alien to the values and principles of the people from here."

Armesto insists he has friends who are gay, but occasionally erupts in contemptuous similes: "If you were having dinner and a cockroach crawled onto your plate," he asked during another radio stint, "would you discriminate?" "Of course," replied a caller. "Thank you," Armesto responded.

4. Antonio "Tony" Verdugo, capo. Verdugo, 40-year-old chairman of the Miami-Dade Christian Coalition, is currently awaiting trial. Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers arrested him at 6:00 a.m. on August 16. They charged Verdugo with one felony count of false swearing in connection with the petition drive that put the repeal referendum on the ballot. (Three other Take Back family members were also arrested on charges related to petition fraud.) Verdugo faces up to three years in jail if convicted. In La Poderosa appearances he compared his arrest to the early-morning raid in April 2000 in which federal agents removed Elian Gonzalez from the arms of a Broward housecleaner who had hidden the boy in a Little Havana closet. He has choice words for his homosexualist enemies at SAVE Dade/Say No to Discrimination. "I have homosexuals who signed the petition," he told radio host Farias. "I have homosexuals who are helping [us] in this campaign. Because they know that this group of chums, this little Mafia, this grupito, these extremists who say they represent the homosexual community, what they represent is their wallets and their interests."

5. Rosa Armesto, consiglieri. The arrest of Verdugo and the three others thrust the Underboss's tempestuous yet elegant 38-year-old sister into the public spotlight, and added to her already heavy burden as a DCF employee. She has shouted down almost everyone who has dared debate her, with the possible exception of Phil Donahue. As a guest on Donahue's new MSNBC show, she explained to Phil, Mayor Penelas, and the nation that "all laws are passed when there is a demonstrated need for it [sic]." As evidence that there is no discrimination, she noted that loan applications in Miami-Dade do not ask applicants to indicate whether or not they are homosexual. "Mr. Mayor," she continued, "I am reminded of that commercial: Where's the beef? Where's the discrimination? It is such a hoax that we see all the opposite. Homosexual groups have been courted by the media and have extreme political power."

6. Nathaniel Wilcox, capo. Wilcox, age 48, is executive director of PULSE, People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, another family-values outfit. "Our concern is making sure that the moral compass of this community is not determined by people who don't have any morals. That's the bottom line," Wilcox declares. "We've learned how to network. When it came down to having a Civilian Investigative Panel we had to network with the Cuban community to make change. Dealing with these moral issues, we're networking with the Hispanic community in order to bring about change. And change many times takes time, and we have time. So we are not going away and we are going to strengthen our networking ability within the Hispanic community, identifying more individuals in the black community who understand what exactly the evils in the process are."

7. Rev. Joe Silas, capo. Silas serves as the president of PULSE. "We have formed a coalition with the Cuban community, or should I say that portion that deals with Take Back Miami-Dade. And we are going in it for the long haul. Because they see discrimination and racism against the black community as an evil. Also it's permeated by Alex Penelas. He is lying to the community, the black community of course. He has hoodwinked them, he has bamboozled our black politicians. He has used them to his wants and his desires. Then he kicks them to the side. In other words he has been a Judas. He has done nothing for our community."

8. Rev. Willie Sims, soldier. Sims is rumored to have entered the Witness Protection Program after an eleventh-hour betrayal of an oath to vote for repeal. For months the president of the African American Council of Christian Clergy (AACCC) had remained loyal. But that drew heat from his bosses at the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board, whose mission is to thwart prejudice and promote tolerance. On election eve, Sims flipped: "As a long-time fighter against discrimination, I certainly don't want to be party to any blatant acts of discrimination against any group of people," he stated. "I have discussed this with many people in the civil rights field and I value their opinions. Please let it be made extremely clear that as an Ordained Minister of the Gospel, I still believe that the homosexual lifestyle is morally wrong and an abomination in the eyesight of God. However, I don't think this gives us the right to discriminate against the gay community." Accusing Sims of committing a Judas-like sellout, Silas condemned him: "Any minister get up there and try to serve Mammon and God, too, is a liar!"

9. Rev. Richard Bennett, Jr., soldier. The 45-year-old AACCC executive director earned stripes for his tireless leafleting during the Vote Yes campaign and for fearlessly challenging old-guard black leaders such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s top associates. The flyers, distributed at churches in Miami-Dade's black community, included one of Bennett's own eloquent quotes: "To compare the sexual preference amendment to the civil rights movement is embarrassing. It's nothing but a smokescreen. Our forefathers fought for us to ride the bus, be able to go to restaurants. The civil rights movement has nothing to do with homosexuality." The flyer also quoted Shuttlesworth saying, "It is wrong to equate homosexuality with civil rights." Shuttlesworth, when he learned Take Back had used his name for the repeal campaign, issued this statement: "Discrimination against any group of people is morally wrong. Racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are all unacceptable forms of hatred, and as a minister I cannot subscribe to any form of hatred. I believe in the equality of all God's people."

10. Jorge Rodriguez, associate, owner of La Poderosa (The Powerful One). Rodriguez plays a crucial role by enabling the Take Back family to amplify its anti-homosexualist message and appear more popular than perhaps it really is. The full extent of the financial relationship between the station and the family is unknown. A week before the vote, Rodriguez announced a new late-night call-in show called Inquietudes (Apprehensions) whose mission was to foment "objective" debates and help "orient" listeners on important issues. A female caller said that soon in Miami we'll have nude marches by gays à la San Francisco. Host Miguel Melanio objectively offered his thoughts about homosexuality: "For me it is an atheism. Because if you don't respect la cosa divina, the law of God, then you don't respect anything."

11. Tomas "Tomasito" Regalado, capo. The independent-minded District 4 Miami commissioner isn't afraid to offer his frank opinion of the Underboss. "He's crazy," the 55-year-old Regalado told the press recently after Armesto complained that Channel 51 anchor Ambrosio Hernandez called him a marica (fag) during a tense interview several weeks before the election. But when it comes to public proclamations Regalado remains loyal to the Take Back creed: Anti-homosexual discrimination doesn't exist. As election day approached, two ladies from the Commission on the Status of Women asked the commissioners to pass a resolution supporting the current anti-discrimination law. Regalado did not understand. "Are you saying that we discriminate in the City of Miami? We are an equal-opportunity city. So what is the problem?" he asked the women, then said he could not support them. "I will be taking a lot of heat for this," he added. "And I'm willing to take the heat. Like Truman."

12. Raquel Regalado, capa. As host of the La Poderosa talk show Lo Que Otros No Dicen(What Others Don't Say), the commissioner's wife provides astute political analysis of, and moral support for, the family's struggle. On air the day after the election, Mrs. Regalado, age 65, said she believed the precinct problems were a stratagem by the elections department to prevent elderly Cuban Americans, who traditionally vote Republican and conservative, from casting ballots. "I think this is a maneuver to thwart the old people who go out to vote," she said, "and a way to end Cuban-American electoral power." Verdugo, who was on-air by phone, replied, "No doubt about it."

13. Rick Sanchez, associate. The former WSVN-TV (Channel 7) newscaster is now a New York City-based MSNBC anchor and host of a radio talk show that airs in South Florida on WQBA-AM (1140) and in NYC. In a show a week before the election, Sanchez invited Rosa Armesto to explain how it came to pass that Verdugo was arrested for opposing the "homosexual agenda." But before she did, Sanchez ventured: "It would be almost impossible to acquire 500 signatures for any cause without finding a few signatures that a person signed twice, or another individual faked his telephone number, or didn't put his last name correctly." Sanchez found it "a little strange" that authorities targeted a man with Verdugo's way of thinking, adding: "It seems to me that it was done for political reasons."

14. Janet Folger, soldier. At a Take Back news conference at San Juan Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana four days before the vote, Folger declined to reveal her last name to some reporters. But the 39-year-old Fort Lauderdale activist dexterously spun the ballot item into a referendum on Boy Scout policies and the First Amendment: "Think about it. We're in a Catholic church right now. And I would wager a guess that most of the news agencies that you represent went after the Catholic Church. What was the offense? They claimed the Catholic Church did not do enough. And while blaming the Catholic Church for doing nothing to protect young boys from homosexual assault, the same people are blaming the Boy Scouts for doing something to protect young boys from homosexual assault. And what we're looking at here is the freedom to disagree, the right to petition your government, the right to believe what you see fit." Boy Scouts of America executive Jeffrie Herrmann has seen fit to warn that "attempts by anyone to use the Boy Scouts' name and cause to fuel their agenda are not in the best interest of our community."

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