Pork Pirates

They'll slaughter your dinner as you watch — but don't tell the cops.

Are the vacas up for slaughter as well?

The farmer shows his palms: Sí, claro.

The reporter drives on to a larger operation only a few hundred feet from Cabrera's. Ignoring the kiddy pool full of mud at the center of their dung-layered pen, grunting hogs pile atop each other in an obese parody of a cheerleading pyramid. The men here play dominoes — and the place's owner casually complains of a lack of customers. Again: Of course he kills; just come back Sunday when you want the hog.

Guess what? Farms with signs like this one don't usually sell the hogs alive.
C. Stiles
Guess what? Farms with signs like this one don't usually sell the hogs alive.
C. Stiles

In all, New Times visits nine farms. Eight farmers agree without hesitation to slaughter a hog. And the one who doesn't has an unassailable excuse. "No puercos," he explains, holding a limp chicken's head to a loudly whirring grinding machine. "Solo pollo."

You might never know it from their candor, but what these guajiros are promising is a criminal offense. The slaughter and sale of an animal without a U.S. Department of Agriculture license merits a litany of misdemeanor charges: improper disposal of an animal, doing business without a license, creating a sanitary nuisance, and, often, animal cruelty.

It's a subject that elicits grave words from USDA spokesperson Amanda Eamich. "Our enforcement branch takes allegations quite seriously," she says. "When you go to the grocery store and see the mark of inspection on a piece of meat, you can be confident that every precaution has been taken to ensure that it's safe."

The Florida Department of Health has no record of illness stemming from eating unlicensed meat, but officials there caution such things could go unreported. That agency lists 1,294 cases of meat-based food poisoning between 2004 and 2008, including 100 sicknesses known to be caused by eating pork tainted by bacteria including everything from salmonella to staphylococcus. "If there is an infectious outbreak," in meat from an unlicensed slaughterhouse, conjectures Robert Williams, a Miami-Dade Police spokesman, "you will have no recourse."

But illegal butchery is unfamiliar to Hialeah Gardens Police Chief Van Toth, whose NW 87th Street office is only two miles from the farm where Rafael's sow was slaughtered. "That's news to me," he says. "This is the first I've heard of it."

To be fair, Northwest Dade is outlaw territory, where illegal slaughter certainly isn't the only criminal activity practiced with impunity. The farmland is marred by rampant illegal dumping: Old tires, gutted boats, ancient Jet Skis, and other discarded items lie in Calcutta-esque mounds on roadsides. At the intersection of NW 186th Street and 137th Avenue, the torched remains of vehicles are regularly found — presumably the work of thieves, drug dealers, and insurance swindlers.

On a recent weekend, all-day revelers filled the neglected area. Club ranches — sprawling cowboy bars — blasted bachata music, served beer, and roasted meat. On a dusty inlet that one resident calls "cockfight alley," men toted roosters to and from rings in specially designed narrow cases emblazoned with slogans such as "Gallo Fuerte," brazenly defying animal-cruelty laws.

Unlicensed butchery is but the most prominent tentacle of the criminal activity that has seized Northwest Dade, says Carlos, a burly Cuban-American who has spent most of his 47 years in the area. He insists on anonymity as he describes a sort of local meat mafia awash with drug cash. "The people are scared to talk because of threats," he says. "Here they'll shoot at you if they think you ratted on them. It's like a Third-World county we're in right now."

The area also hosts the county's only two legal slaughterhouses: Madson Meat in Medley and Cabrera's in Hialeah Gardens. They follow national slaughter guidelines requiring that hogs be stunned by an electric bolt and that their necks be quickly slit. The carcasses are then hung upside-down and drained of blood.

The two businesses combine to kill more than 1,500 hogs a day during the runup to nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, when Hispanic tradition calls for a hog roast. For a couple of days each year, Cabrera's and Madson are inundated with hourlong lines of customers waiting to choose their pigs, which sell for around $1.50 a pound. But the local legit slaughter business has always been hindered by unlicensed startups, says John Madson, owner of Madson Meat. "I've been in business here 38 years, and for 38 years, the illegal guys have been eating at our bottom line," he says. "Of course it affects our business. They pay no taxes, and they have no sanitary expenses. It's not a level playing field."

State food safety chief Dr. John Fruin confirms West Dade — stretching from as far south as Kendall to the northern borders of the county — is known as a problem region. "They pop up en masse from time to time," says the Tallahassee-based official. "There's quite a bit of immigrant population down there and a lot of folks that have come from countries that didn't have regulated meat inspection facilities."

Despite his official position, Fruin is sympathetic to the do-it-yourselfers: "When I was growing up, we did it in the tool shed."

On the rain-soaked early afternoon of Wednesday, October 8, following an anonymous tip, a cavalcade of green-and-white county vehicles raided a dilapidated farm on SW 197th Avenue in west Kendall. More than 20 officials from six agencies found a tract swarming with more than 470 animals — cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, and about 170 hogs. The evidence of killing was everywhere. In what appeared to be a slaughtering shed, there were butcher knives lying on a metal table next to a livestock scale. Spent shotgun shells were strewn around the grounds alongside retch-inducing cesspools of animal blood. Hog carcasses hung from walls, and among the meat found in refrigerators was what appeared to be neatly packaged horse flesh.

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