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It was the largest illegal slaughterhouse raid in state history.
Det. Mario Fernandez, a beefy, baby-faced Miami-Dade cop who transferred from the auto theft division to agriculture crimes because he's an animal lover, was in the enforcement motorcade. He mostly remembers the smell when he stepped from his marked Dodge pickup. "It was a strong odor of death," he recalls. "It was this overpowering odor of blood and animal feces... The animals were being fed garbage and the entrails of other animals."
The farm belonged to Ramiro Perez, a lanky, high-decibel 56-year-old Cuban-American, who was soon cuffed and booked on charges of creating a sanitary nuisance and running a business without a license. "I thought they were going to arrest me for murder," he explains in Spanish three months later as his wife serves soapy cortaditos in their dimly lit, comfortable home on SW 102nd Place. "How could they send so many police for this?"
Perez survived some of the most brutal years of the Castro regime before fleeing Cuba in 1986. Thirty-six of his relatives were killed for political insubordination, he says, and he spent much of his life on the run. When you're desperate to pack fat onto your bones, no meat is taboo. "We would eat whatever we could find," he says matter-of-factly. "Horses, cats, dogs."
This past fuels his distaste for heavy-handed government regulation — and the farm raid reminds him of old-country betrayal. "My neighbors are communists," he seethes. "They spy on me and report me to the police, just like they did in Cuba."
Detective Fernandez believes Perez might have been suffering financially. "He couldn't afford to feed all of those animals," the cop says. "It costs $500 to keep a horse for a month. I think Perez was killing animals for neighbors just to keep his head above water."
This isn't the first time authorities in Perez's adopted country have cramped his style. In 1994, he was hit with a domestic violence suit, a case file that has since been destroyed and which Perez refuses to explain. Five years later, when he owned a convenience store called Perez Discount in Little Havana, he was busted by City of Miami cops for selling black-market diet pills. He claimed the several bottles found were for his wife's use, and the case was never prosecuted.
And in 2003, he was convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery after beating a man he says challenged him over a parking spot.
Rap sheets are common among farmers who have been investigated for illegal slaughter, says Detective Fernandez: "They often have priors. You might see drugs or violent crimes. And yeah, there's a fear of retaliation for residents that makes them not want to report these farms to police."
Perez insists he never killed anything on the farm unless it was for his own family's table. The animals were for sale live, he says, and the horses were for his family to ride. He sometimes spies on his former steeds inside the corral where the county now keeps them. "Those animals were my life," he laments, "and they took it from me."
He claims the confiscation has cost him $300,000, and now his padlocked farmland is up for sale.
The fines came to only $338, but Perez isn't yet clear of scrutiny. "There may be more charges forthcoming from other agencies," hints Miami-Dade Police spokesman Bobby Williams.
Perez is off the hook for one violation. It's illegal to slaughter a horse for human consumption, but "what appeared to be horse meat was found by inspectors to be beef," Fernandez says. "At this point, horse consumption in general is still mostly rumor."
That's a rumor given legs by another illegal slaughter case. Two days before last Thanksgiving, a neighbor's tip led cops to the home of unemployed 39-year-old Hialeah resident Ricardo Caonwahi. Their noses led them to his dumpster, where they found the cleaned carcass of a pony. Hialeah Police charged him with three sanitary and animal cruelty misdemeanors, alleging he had killed his own miniature horse with plans to eat it.
Caonwahi maintains he found the pony dead — and cleanly cut into four pieces — on the side of Okeechobee Road. What inspired him to wash it in his bathtub and roast it? Childhood excursions to Hialeah-area farms with his Argentine father, where Dad would order the equestrian delicacy. "Whenever you're low in fiber, just eat a piece of horse," Caonwahi casually advises. "The farmers kill it right there or keep it in fridges. You've got to know somebody... Not just anybody can go in and say, 'Hey, can I have some horse meat?'"
After cleaning the carcass, Caonwahi says, he grew squeamish and decided against eating it. The sanitary nuisance charges have been dropped, but his animal cruelty defense will soon be heard in front of a jury.
Though the county swarms with illegal butchers, instances of prosecution are rare. Neither Detective Fernandez nor USDA spokeswoman Eamich knows of other local cases. "We might get a tip that there's a possible animal slaughter setup," Fernandez explains. "When we get there, they've cleaned everything up — the blood, the knives. They can just claim they're raising animals. It's very frustrating."