21,000 Code Citations Can't Be Wrong

Three years into the Magic City's battle against illegal minutiae, residents want to know: quality of life? Whose?

On Wednesday, October 12, shortly after 6:00 p.m., three police cars slide into the parking lot of a Walgreens on SW First Street and Twelfth Avenue. The sun is low in the sky, and the first lights are snapping on in Little Havana as residents arrive home from work. Tonight's raid will be a waiting game, and for the moment, police need to lay low.

In the muted interior of his vehicle, Maj. Mike Exposito, a stocky, mustached 31-year veteran of the Miami Police Department, recalls that he became a cop more than three decades ago by tagging along with a couple of friends to a recruiting fair.

Then the radio crackles: "Be advised. Owner of Latin market outside, talking to tow truck owner. Possible countersurveillance."

La Reyna bust: Maj. Mike Exposito (right) leads a raid on La 
Reyna Cafeteria, where the manager is arrested for serving 
beer without food
Jonathan Postal
La Reyna bust: Maj. Mike Exposito (right) leads a raid on La Reyna Cafeteria, where the manager is arrested for serving beer without food
Area cafeteria owners have come to expect the raids and arrests. Miami police say they are reducing serious crime by cracking down on small-time violations
Jonathan Postal
Area cafeteria owners have come to expect the raids and arrests. Miami police say they are reducing serious crime by cracking down on small-time violations

Exposito snaps to attention and presses the button on his walkie-talkie. "Moving out!" he announces. The squad cars leave the Walgreens, their lights flashing. The caravan sidelines evening traffic as it snakes down Twelfth Avenue and then turns left on Eighth Street.

At La Reyna Cafeteria, a small, inconspicuous storefront on Calle Ocho and SW Eleventh Avenue, the customers seem slightly stunned when, seconds later, a pair of plainclothes policemen burst in and yell, "Freeze!" The City of Miami Police Department, they announce, is conducting an investigation.

Enter Exposito, four uniformed police, and two code enforcement officers. The spinning lights of their vehicles blaze through the cafeteria's large windows. The all-male force — now numbering nine — disperses to the corners of the small eatery, eyes flashing, ready for action.

"Wow," is one customer's open-mouthed but frozen response. La Reyna is sparsely populated with a handful of single men. A diner in a yellow hat chews a plantain. The waitresses, dressed the careless way of women who expect to have food spilled on them, observe police with annoyed boredom.

Miami Vice it is not.

But fifteen minutes after the officers enter, police lead the restaurant's manager, a tired-looking woman in a blue T-shirt, to the squad car in cuffs. "This is unjust," she complains. "I have cancer...." The police shut her in the back seat.

"It's always something," Exposito sighs. "I have kids at home, I have cancer...."

This particular outing is Exposito's 160th since 2003. On this night, Exposito's illegal cafeteria task force visits three cafeterias and makes arrests at every one.

The crime? Serving beer without a full meal.

In 2002, Miami declared a war on such varied nuisances as illegal cafeterias, abandoned cars, and public drunkenness. The crusade was baptized with a vanilla name: the Quality of Life Task Force. Since its creation, a small army of fire, police, building, and code inspectors has issued more than 21,000 citations and visited over 1000 businesses. They've also made more than 1000 arrests — most at cafeterias that serve alcohol without a meal or employ what is known in Miami law enforcement parlance as "b-girls." (Major Exposito explains them thusly: "A woman comes up and asks a man, 'Will you buy me a beer?' Her beer is $15; his is $3.")

Some other numbers from the battleground: 800 illegal gaming machines confiscated, 4312 abandoned cars removed, 698 illegal units cited, and 6427 illegal chickens netted. The task force has also collected $551,000 in fines from code enforcement violations.

In a city where civic largesse is not in abundance (ask anyone trying to merge onto I-95 during rush hour), Miami officials dream of a community-minded, rule-abiding place where well-maintained yards are empty of rusty automobiles, hens nest in neatly padlocked cages, and well-lit cafeterias serve cafecitos, not prostitutes, to their patrons. Task force opponents say that the City of Miami is using code enforcement as an excuse to rid itself of poor people, immigrants, poultry, fun, and anything else that might impede investment in a glassy high-rise mecca of state-of-the-art gyms and Sub-Zero refrigerators.

What happens in Miami — where almost two-thirds of the population is foreign born and three-fourths speak a language other than English at home — when the city government attempts a crackdown is different from what happens in any other American city: What happens in Miami is a clash of cultures.

The question stands: quality of life? Whose?

On October 12, eleven hours before the police raid on La Reyna, Sgt. Al Alvarez sits in a swivel chair in his Allapattah office. Wearing a gray Nike T-shirt, white Nike sneakers, navy sweatpants, and gold accessories, he pages through task force files. He stops at 5 SW 55th Ave., a cafeteria called Los Amigos, which this past summer, after numerous inspections, lost its license to operate.

According to police reports from April 2004 to May 2005, he explains, officers made arrests at Los Amigos for drug possession ("While conducting a business inspection in an undercover capacity, I observed defendant drop a blue pen cap with a yellow-color baggy containing a white powder substance."); for weapons possession ("A pat-down of the defendant's outer garments revealed a knife-like object in his front right pocket. Upon retrieval of the object, an inspection of the knife revealed it to be a USA Super Knife, which is a switch blade with a length of five inches."); and for so-called mingling ("The defendant, who is an employee of the business, was observed by this officer masturbating a customer in the southeast corner of the club. The patron had his pants down....").

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