Pork Pirates

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

Another reason might be a lack of political will. When New Times contacts Miami-Dade Commissioner Pepe Diaz, he requests more information about his district's blight and illegal slaughter problems. But New Times' offer of a guided tour is rebuffed. "Because of a very busy schedule," laments spokesperson Olga Vega, "the commissioner is going to have to decline."

Don't tell Manuel Coto enforcement is lacking. The foulmouthed, five-foot-two-inch, 240-pound angry fireplug of a hog farmer, who wears a filth-splattered cowboy hat and a V-neck T-shirt that exposes a Brillo-textured bed of gray chest hair, has only scorn for the county authorities who hound him. "I've been in this country 55 fucking years," Coto says in a distinctive deep and gravelly voice — think Tommy Lee Jones with a Cuban twang. "I pay my goddamn taxes. The way things are with the economy, they should leave me alone to support myself and my family and five or six fucking employees on top of that."

His NW 182nd Street farmhouse is an expansive lime-green, one-story rectangular structure supported on all sides by Roman columns. Perhaps this audacious architecture has inspired the extra attention he's been getting from Miami-Dade Police and code enforcement.

The columned palace of hog farmer Manuel Coto. He insists he has found a way to illegally slaughter animals, um, legally
C. Stiles
The columned palace of hog farmer Manuel Coto. He insists he has found a way to illegally slaughter animals, um, legally

Since 2008, he's been hit twice with criminal charges related to his 70-head hog business: buying and selling livestock without a license, and driving his commercial truck without proper commercial markings — charges that were dropped when he forked over fines. Worse, the day before nochebuena 2008, 15 inspectors pulled up to Coto's ranch, he says. He had to slam the gates shut, surrendering commerce on the local hog farmer's equivalent of Black Friday. The lost business cost him $15,000, he says.

"They need to worry about all the thieves that steal animals," declares Coto's equally pissed wife, Marilyn. "They need to take care of the illegal dumping. We keep our property clean, and the street around us."

The Cotos complain they have been beleaguered by horse theft. And one night, apparently hungry criminals sawed off the back legs of one of their cows and disappeared with them. He claims state gun laws rob him of his right to enact frontier justice. "Because I don't have a license, I can't walk around with a rifle," he laments. "What am I going to tell a thief when I catch them: 'Wait a minute — I'm gonna go get a gun'?"

(Message to Manuel: It is legal in Florida to carry around a rifle on your own property.)

He believes he has found a way around the need for a slaughterhouse license. He'll sell you a hog live and pocket the cash while the animal is still breathing. After that, he'll offer you a "facility" for the slaughter — and any help you need. Asked if this usually means his farmhands are the ones doing the hog-wrangling and throat-slitting, Coto nods unabashedly. "I don't have any schooling," he says, "but I know the law.

He might want to brush up on some of the finer points of animal code. "I believe he's misinformed," Detective Fernandez says when told of Coto's maneuvering. "There is no technical way out of committing a crime. It's still illegal."

Either way, on the afternoon New Times tours his farm, Coto is unable to exhibit his unique evasion technique. Today there are no customers for the hundred bucks-plus he charges for a midsize pig. But he proudly shows off his stock: He sells feral hogs, recently descended from wild ancestors. Their fur is coarse and heavy, and their demeanor is more aggressive than that of their domesticated brethren. Coto's hogs constantly snarl and snap teeth under the weight of the others. Their meat tastes rangier and more complex.

Like many locally farmed hogs, Coto's pigs get their slop from the plate-to-garbage leftovers donated by nearby Latin restaurants and food-by-the-pound cafeterias. "They eat fucking rice and beans. I raise them from this big," the farmer brags, crossing his chunky arms to cradle an imaginary piglet. "I don't give them none of that shit they might inject them with at one of those big farms. People know me and trust me — that I'm going to raise a healthy pig."

Understandably, the claim that illegal pork is as healthy as the inspected variety alarms officials. "In these places, they use the same knives, the same tools, without washing them," Detective Fernandez says disgustedly. "They feed hogs guts from hogs they've just killed. You're lucky if you don't get sick."

But while state food safety chief Dr. Fruin is adamant about the environmental cost of unregulated butchers who "tend to not properly dispose of offal, hides, and head," he can't bring himself to voice a sensational sound bite condemning ingestion of unlicensed pork. "If a piece of meat is properly cooked, even from an illegal slaughter operation," he allows, "there's not much risk."

So, would he eat one of Manuel Coto's hogs? "Who's gonna cook it?" the doctor responds wryly. "If I bought the meat from one of these back-alley places, I would make sure it was a little bit on the dry side."

Raúl Musibay of 3GuysFromMiami.com, a website devoted to the how-to of hog roasts, puts it another way: "In Cuba, we don't have Sedano's and we don't have Publix. And nobody gets sick from buying a pig from a farm."

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