Latin American dictators love South Florida
© Rory Kurtz 2010, Levy Creative Management, NYC
Forget Epcot. Screw the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Put down that glossy guidebook to Orlando hotel bargains before we sic our guerrillas on your pastel-pants-wearing ass.
This is South Florida, muchacho, the retirement home of army strongmen, torturers, and every other unsavory character from the Southern Hemisphere. We make Casablanca look like a Daffy Duck cartoon.
Why, then, shouldn't we celebrate our heritage as a second home to the worst leaders of Western civilization? (Hey, they're building a freaking library for George W. Bush in Texas.) So here it is: a guidebook to the bastards who have tried to flee international tribunals and angry drug lords by settling in South Florida. Want to see where these guys lived while hiding out in our hood? Yeah, we did too. So we plumbed property records, consulted historians, and dived into overflowing boxes of lawsuits.
What we found are palatial Venetian Island mansions, decrepit apartment complexes, crumbling riverside estates, and horse-country ranch houses. There's a safe full of bloody snuff photos near the Miami River, and a dictator's ghost haunts a renter in Allapattah. We even discovered traces of the king of Latin American honchos, Fidel Castro himself, left during his sojourn here.
So book that ticket! If not, there could be consequences.
Terrifying nickname: The Tropical Mussolini
Iron-fisted infamy: Four decades before El Comandante stormed Havana, Gerardo Machado brought dictatorship to Cuba like a gift-wrapped turd. Elected the island's fifth president in 1925, he exiled student dissidents and might have ordered soldiers to kill opposition leader Julio Antonio Mella. He even created La Porra (the Truncheon) — a bowel-loosening secret police force that tossed enemies into gulag-esque underground prisons.
Finding him in South Florida: 1503 NW 26th St., most recently bought for $197,000 in 2003. At the trash-strewn intersection of NW 15th Avenue and 26th Street in Allapattah, a two-and-half-story, Spanish-style mansion, neatly painted beige and topped with a red-tiled roof, rises from the blight. A square tower stands at one corner, and hand-carved plaster reliefs decorate the exterior.
A little after noon on a steamy Saturday, a frosted glass door swings open and a bear of a man with a yellow mustache and a thick crown of straw-colored hair lumbers out. A flap of gut hangs out of a sweaty gray Old Navy T-shirt. "You're writing about Machado!" says the ursine tenant, whose name is Dwayne. Then he opens a gas grill and flips crackling hamburgers the size of his meaty fists. "He lived here, you know."
Dwayne is right — probably. Machado fled Cuba in 1933 after an uprising. On his way to a life of exile, his seaplane stopped at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, says Paul George, a historian with the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. Furious crowds of exiled Cubans — many banished from their homeland by Machado himself — were waiting. The dictator escaped to Canada and Germany before returning to Miami in the late '30s.
George hasn't found property records in Machado's name, but he believes there's truth behind the urban legend that Machado hunkered down in this sprawling estate, which was well west of settled Miami at the time.
Dwayne agrees. "He used to own this whole area, a big plot of land running west with all the royal palms you see around here," he says. "The house is about all that's left; they developed everything else."
The aftermath: Stricken by cancer — and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Walter Matthau in round, horn-rimmed glasses — Machado died in a Miami Beach hospital March 29, 1939. He is buried in Miami's Woodlawn Park Cemetery North. Dwayne thinks his ghost remains. "I do hear noises, I'll tell you that," he says, flipping steaming meat patties on Machado's front lawn. "I have two cats and it's an old house, so you never know for sure. But I hear some stuff in here that would turn your head, all right."
Terrifying nickname: Kaibiles Killer
Iron-fisted infamy: In 1982, as a 26-year-old soldier in Guatemala's national army, Gilberto Jordán enlisted in an elite paramilitary team known as the Kaibiles. The red-beret-wearing soldiers were notorious for recklessly slaughtering any indigenous people unlucky enough to get in their way. On December 7, 1982, Jordán's unit of 20 soldiers surrounded the unfortunate town of Dos Erres. Jordán grabbed the first baby he saw and threw it down a well before his unit interrogated every man in the village, raped most of the women, and then murdered 251 townspeople — many by smashing their foreheads with a hammer and then throwing them down a well. "[He] sounds like a mass murderer," a federal judge said during his trial earlier this year. Jordán didn't argue.
Finding him in South Florida: 5068 Palm Ridge Blvd., Delray Beach, purchased for $149,900 in 2002. When war criminals, guerrillas, and dictators escape to South Florida, says Carmen Pino, special agent in charge of the Miami office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, "they want to blend in, and that's easiest in an ethnic community full of people from the same place as you."
If that was his goal, Jordán could hardly have done better than to choose a slightly dilapidated block of Palm Ridge Boulevard in Delray Beach. Three houses west of the corner of bustling Military Trail sits a one-story, white-stucco house trimmed in sky blue.
Pinned to the front door is a huge silver snowflake, absurd and wilting in the summer heat. Christmas lights dangle from the gutters, and a single 30-pound barbell lies in the driveway. No one seems to live here now. But neighbor Marie Jean remembers when Jordán and his family did. They looked like anyone else on the block of immigrants from Central American mountain towns and Caribbean islands, she says. Jordán cooked Italian food at a golf club, and his relatives kept to themselves."They didn't have any kids, so we never ran into them," Jean says. "It's an OK neighborhood here." Then she flashes a bright smile and looks up shyly from downcast eyes. "But you never really know nobody, do you?"
The aftermath: Early in the morning of this past May 5, a team of ICE agents swarmed Jordán's home after blocking traffic on Palm Ridge. He was booked for lying about his military service on his immigration application. He surrendered without a fight. In July, Jordán admitted to his role in the massacre, and a federal judge ordered him held without bond. He could face up to ten years in U.S. prison and deportation to Guatemala, where the police have filed criminal charges over his role at Dos Erres.
Terrifying nickname: The Mafia's President
Iron-fisted infamy: If Machado brought modern dictatorship to Cuba, Fulgencio Batista perfected it — and then sold his country to the Mafia. After leading a revolt against Machado in 1933, he governed in the shadows until 1940, when he won a four-year term as president. Following a short break in Miami, he returned to Cuba in 1952 to wrench power from a democratically elected government as part of a U.S.-backed coup. He held power for seven years more, during which he invited Meyer Lansky and other gangsters to Havana. Anyone who didn't like the arrangement was welcome to a .38 bullet between the eyes or a decade-long vacay on the Isle of Pines.
Batista was such a colossal jerk that most Cubans rejoiced when a socialist named Fidel Castro stormed into town and forced him out. So you can thank ol' F.B. for 50 years of bad tracksuits and bloviating anti-yanqui speeches.
Finding him in South Florida: 640 NW North River Dr., Miami, worth $428,836. In the late '60s, Jerry Enis was a young, boating-crazy physician when he found a two-story, salmon-pink residence for sale in the historic Spring Garden neighborhood.
From the outside, it looked perfect. It had a sprawling lawn and a swimming pool. Best of all, the home sat right on the Miami River. Enis telephoned the owner, a Dominican, who warned him before handing over the keys for a tour that there were a few unique features.
"He told me he'd bought it directly from Fulgencio Batista's family," Enis says.
At first, the doctor had doubts about that claim. But then he learned the walls were solid concrete. And buried in the floor, just as the seller had warned, was a baffling complex of phone jacks. Then he stumbled across a safe he wasn't meant to find. The door was ajar, so Enis pulled it open. Inside, stacked haphazardly, was a pile of black-and-white photos. Each showed a corpse, executed with a bullet to the head. "I guess they were political enemies. I really didn't care to know. I slammed the thing shut and kept walking," he says.
The aftermath: Enis bought the house anyway and raised a family in Batista's old home. Now he rents it to another doctor's family. "Hell no, I never gave it one thought that this guy lived there," Enis says. "I knew the history of what he put people through, but that was the past, you know?"
As for Batista, he never made it back to his Spring Garden house after Fidel's revolution in 1959. He was denied asylum in the United States and wiled away his last years in Portugal before a heart attack cut him down in 1973.
Terrifying nickname: The Intelligent Prosper Avril (frighteningly bestowed by François "Papa Doc" Duvalier)
Iron-fisted infamy: Prosper Avril rose to power through Haiti's military after joining the presidential guard of murderous dictator François Duvalier in 1969. He served as a trusted adviser to both Papa Doc and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, before staging a coup d'état in September 1988 and installing himself as a Duvalier-style dictator. He ruled with brutal force in Port-au-Prince for two years, throwing the opposition into jail and publicly beating and shaming them. Avril's thugs beat Evans Paul, the democratically elected mayor of Port-au-Prince, and then paraded the bleeding and bruised politician on national television. Amnesty International says Avril's brief presidency was "marred by gross human rights violations." He squirreled away hundreds of thousands of dollars embezzled from international aid and Haitian government coffers.
Finding him in South Florida: 6881 N. Saint Andrews Dr., Miami Lakes, most recently purchased for $360,000 in 1997. Question: You're a dictator, and as all well-schooled dictators must, you've ripped off your nation's budget worse than Bernie Madoff with a mutual fund. Where do you put all of those greenbacks? Answer: Real estate. Preferably palm-tree-shaded South Florida real estate, where you can spend your remaining days of freedom drinking mojitos under the watchful eye of your AK-47-strapped bodyguards. In October 1988, "the Intelligent Prosper Avril," as Papa Doc called him, sank $200,000 into a handsome tan ranch home with a red-tiled roof on North Saint Andrews Drive, a winding suburban Miami Lakes road that rings a neatly trimmed golf course.
When furious mobs and a military junta forced him to split for South Florida in March 1990, the former dictator didn't waste any time before spreading more of his wealth. Two months later, he bought another ranch home just three blocks north on Saint Andrews Drive for $290,000. It was nearly identical to the first, with a semicircular driveway around a leafy, half-moon garden, and a long emerald driving green off the back patio.
Avril and his wife spent at least a year in the suburb until a civil lawsuit — brought by attorney Ira Kurzban and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of abused opposition leaders — forced him to flee.
Today, 6881 Saint Andrews is a quiet respite blocks from the traffic humming along Miami Gardens Drive. Martha Haber and her husband, Kenneth, have lived there since 1997. Martha says she knew the history of the place when they bought it, but it was hard to believe a murderous tyrant spent his evenings on such a peaceful suburban street.
"When we were remodeling, I kept expecting to find some incriminating papers or some money or bodies or something in the walls," she says matter-of-factly. "But we didn't find anything... I came and sat for a while in the house before we bought it, and it felt like a peaceful place to me."
The aftermath: A federal judge ruled against Avril in 1994, ordering him to pay victims $41 million in compensation. But the despot had long since fled back to Haiti.
Avril lived in obscurity outside Port-au-Prince until 2001, when he released a book about his life and began promoting it in cafés and shops in the capital. That May, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ordered him arrested and held on an old charge of plotting against the government. He languished in jail for several years until Aristide was forced to flee the country in 2004. That March, a Miami Herald reporter caught up with Avril, "reading novels" comfortably inside his house. His victims have never been paid.
Telmo Ricardo Hurtado
Terrifying nickname: Butcher of the Andes
Iron-fisted infamy: Peru. 1985. The manchaytimpu, a time of conflict. The government was locked in a death battle with Maoist rebels from the Shining Path, and armed paramilitary squads hunted the Andes for weapons caches and guerrillas. On August 14, Telmo Ricardo Hurtado — a thin, tan, 24-year-old second lieutenant with side-parted black hair — led 30 Peruvian soldiers into a village in Quebrada de Huancayo, a dusty green valley 14 hours from Lima. Hurtado filed the 70 or so villagers into a field while his troops ransacked their homes. Then he shepherded them into two houses, where his troops fired machine guns, threw grenades, and set the homes ablaze. Seventy-four people died.
Finding him in South Florida: 7344 Byron Ave., Miami Beach, an apartment building now worth $1.45 million. There might be more modest places for an internationally wanted butcher to live out his last years on the lam than the Hirbess Apartments, but it's difficult to imagine them. The building forms a two-story beige U around a well-swept concrete courtyard on Byron Avenue, a side street in a sleepy neighborhood just south of Surfside. On weekdays, a few retirees trundle walkers and drag their tiny, yipping dogs along the sidewalk.
Hurtado moved here in 2002, after the Peruvian government rejected other amnesty deals for killers. He lived for some time in Apartment 2, a ground-floor unit behind a stack of mailboxes.
Today, there's no name on the mailbox. Next door, a child's hobby horse with a stuffed tiger head leans against the door frame, and a stunt bike is chained to the '60s-era, curved iron railing. Marta Dominguez, an unsmiling, 40-something woman in a frilly pink shirt, has been cleaning the Hirbess for more than a decade. She remembers Hurtado as a quiet guy who helped his mom with the laundry and kept to himself. And she recalls talking to neighbors in the courtyard the day after ICE agents dragged him away. By then, everyone had heard about the Peruvian bloodbath. "I guess you never know," she says before shaking her head, crumbling a trash bag in her hand, and walking away.
The aftermath: On March 30, 2009, ICE agents caught up with Hurtado at an apartment a few blocks away at 7340 Harding Ave., where he was hiding in a bathroom. He eventually earned a six-month sentence in federal prison for lying on his visa application and was deported to Peru. He also lost a $37 million federal civil suit in 2008 to victims of the massacre; it's not clear whether he has paid any of them.
Nickname: Tachito (his murderous father was known as Tacho)
Iron-fisted infamy: Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza was the last link in the rotten chain of dictators who spent nearly half a century grinding Nicaragua, the poorest nation in Central America, under their designer Italian-leather shoes. His father, Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza, took control of the armed forces in 1933 with the help of the U.S. government and then ruled until 1956, when a poet assassinated him. His first son, the portly Luis, took over until 1967 and was followed by Tachito. As the Sandinista rebels gained steam in the '70s, Tachito jailed and murdered thousands of opposition figures.
Finding him in South Florida: Somewhere on Palm Island, Miami Beach. Pablo whips off his wrap-around sunglasses, eyes wide with excitement. "Anastasio Somoza? The Nicaraguan dude! Nobody wants to see his place anymore."
Pablo wears his long hair bushy and tied into small bunches, Jack Sparrow-style, and glistens with sweat from a long day of hustling tour boat tickets to hordes of visitors at Bayfront Park. "You want the Island Princess, bro. My boy Gustavo will hook you up," he says.
Fifteen bucks (plus a discreet fiver for a tip) later, Gustavo — captain of the Island Princess — motors a group of sunburned tourists out onto Biscayne Bay.
"If you look to the right, this place belonged to Robbie Van Winkle, better known as... Vanilla Ice!" Gustavo says as "Ice Ice Baby" blares from the speakers and the palatial Venetian Islands pass on the north. "Now he's broke, broke, baby." The tourists titter. Next comes Shakira's digs."Waka Waka" blasts as the boat drifts farther east.
"OK, look to your right. That white mansion belonged to Anastasio Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua!" Gustavo says in his usual cheery voice. There's no music to play. This is not a mainstay on the tour. After a few moments of awkward silence and a couple hundred feet of water, Gustavo sighs and cues up "Material Girl." "Alllll right, who knows who lived in this lovely mansion?" he asks.
Dictatorial rule, it seems, doesn't cut it on a celebrity cruise.
The aftermath: Though no property records directly tie Somoza to a Palm Island mansion, he likely spent some time there during his dictatorship, George says. Other stories from the '70s link Somoza to a property on Sunset Island. Thanks to his liberal personal use of Nicaraguan tax dollars, he might have owned multiple properties in the Magic City. Either way, the war against the Sandinistas intensified throughout the '70s, and in 1979, Tachito gave up his family's grip on power and tried to flee to Miami. The United States, however, refused to grant him asylum, so he booked it to the friendly confines of Paraguay. He didn't stay safe for long. Just after 10 a.m. September 17, 1980, a team of Sandinista commandos attacked Somoza's Mercedes as he left his Asuncion estate. One assassin dodged Somoza's bodyguards and pumped dozens of machine gun rounds into the limo, riddling Somoza with at least 25 bullets. Just for good measure, another executioner launched a B-50 rocket into the vehicle, ripping the top off like a can of beans and decapitating the driver.
Juan Angel Hernández Lara
Terrifying nickname: Bandit of Battalion 3-16
Iron-fisted infamy: In the '80s, the CIA hired a crack team of assassins to carry out its nefarious plans against leftist guerrillas and politicians throughout Central America. Among the deadliest was a group of Honduran special forces with the ominously boring name of Battalion 3-16. Juan Angel Hernández Lara joined the battalion as a young army recruit and quickly became an officer. He later admitted his duties included shoving metal pins under suspects' fingernails, firing bullets into people's hands to force them to talk, and using plastic bags to smother government enemies.
Finding him in South Florida: 376 Arcadia Dr., Wellington, purchased for $256,500 in 2003. Wellington, an upper-class town on the edge of the Everglades in Palm Beach County, is known for equestrian sports and feels about as edgy as a Harlequin romance novel. At the end of a small cul-de-sac on Arcadia Drive sits a sprawling brown-brick suburban home. Like all the others in the neighborhood, its front lawn looks ready for a croquet match. A classic black mailbox with a little red flag stands near the street.
Susan — a trim, tiny-boned lady with brown permed hair — has lived next door for more than a decade. She remembers Lara even though she didn't talk to him much after he moved in with a woman who lived there. He was a hard worker, up at 7 a.m., and kept to himself when he returned home, Susan says.
The neighbors, of course, didn't know it, but Lara was by then on his third illegal sojourn to the United States. Each time, beginning in 1989, he made his way north to Texas and then traveled to Palm Beach County. He even had the gall in 2001, after being caught for the second time, to plead with a judge to grant him asylum because he was afraid of being tortured back in Honduras. The judge denied the motion and returned him to his homeland — where he was promptly freed. Weeks later, he again made his way north.
Susan knew Lara only as a nice guy who worked as a bricklayer and a construction assistant. But she also recalls the time a SWAT team showed up in 2004. "Oh yeah, we all remember that day," she says. "This is a quiet neighborhood, you know. They mostly rent that house out to equestrian folks working with horses around here. So you remember a police squad swarming around the house like that."
The aftermath: In August 2004, Lara received eight months in federal prison for lying on his immigration forms.
Carlos Sánchez Berzaín
Terrifying nickname: Bolivia's Dick Cheney
Iron-fisted infamy: As Bolivia's defense minister in 2003, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín presided over a government crackdown against mostly indigenous protesters who had blocked roads leading to La Paz. They were picketing plans to sell the country's natural gas reserves to foreign investors. On September 20, 2003, according to filings in an ongoing civil lawsuit, Berzaín flew on a military helicopter to a picturesque, backpacker-friendly hamlet called Sorata to negotiate the release of some tourists. The negotiations quickly went sour. In the lawsuit, victims claim the defense minister ordered troops to fire on the locals. That fight exploded into a month of widespread violence, now nicknamed Black October, that eventually led to 67 protesters dead under a hail of bullets from Berzaín's army. Berzaín said the deaths were collateral damage in a battle to save his country. Most Bolivians disagreed. They ran him and President Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada out of La Paz and into Miami exile by the end of the month.
Finding him in South Florida: 13277 SW 59th Ave., Pinecrest, purchased for $950,000. Since 2003, Berzaín has lived mostly in an exclusive, gated waterfront suburb in Pinecrest. His home is far from the most impressive one on the street; it's a solid-looking ranch house with a few palm trees out front and a tall wooden fence around the back yard. It's a '70s throwback on a strip of three-story, million-dollar mansions with lavish swimming pools.
Berzaín has kept a low profile. Soon after arriving, he showed up for a few speeches at the University of Miami but was dogged by protesters and has since stayed out of the public eye.
The former defense minister has earned Dick Cheney comparisons thanks to his dark visage and reputation for manipulating several Bolivian presidents prior to Evo Morales, who has ruled since 2006. In 2008, several relatives of indigenous protesters killed in Black October sued Berzaín.
He has repeatedly declined to speak with New Times about the allegations, but his lawyers maintain his innocence.
Neighbors have heard about the hubbub but have a hard time connecting it to Carlos, the guy who runs a few miles around the suburb most mornings. "He's a really bright guy, an excellent person," says Guillermo Alvarez, a retired corporate exec who lives next door. "Whatever happened in Bolivia was just politics."
The aftermath: After two years of courtroom fighting, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan handed Black October victims a partial legal victory this past spring, ruling they had standing in U.S. courts to proceed with a civil lawsuit against Berzaín.
He has appealed.
Nickname: El Comandante en Jefe
Iron-fisted infamy: Really? If you live in Miami and need some clarification on this point, strap on a Che T-shirt and head to Versailles on Calle Ocho. If you make it back with both kneecaps intact and feel lucid enough to recall the encounter, give us a call.
Finding him in South Florida: It's not possible, is it? Did el jefe máximo — scourge of the yanqui empire, enemy of 11 U.S. presidents, grand old bastard of the Caribbean — actually call Miami home for a spell?
Well, no. Not exactly. But he did pass through on at least one important occasion. The year was 1955. The place was Miami's original Little Havana, the area just west of downtown Flagler Street, where thousands of exiles from Batista's corrupt regime had set up shop and scores of paunchy men in guayaberas spent long afternoons sipping cortaditos.
Near Flagler and NW Second Avenue, Castro — then an angry anti-Batista firebrand — drew thousands of exiles on November 20, 1955. He spoke inside the Flagler Theater, an art deco masterpiece once located at 313 W. Flagler Street.
Luis Conte Aguero — now an 86-year-old part-time TV host on Telemiami and then a Castro ally — was there. He was on the dais, in fact, while a 29-year-old Fidel raged against Batista and collected a few thousand dollars from the Cubans in the room. "The thing I remember to this day is how in his speech he made a big deal of pointing out that there were 26,000 Cubans at the time in exile. And look what he ended up doing?'' Aguero told the Miami Herald in 2008.
Castro even gave the Herald an interview before the rally. "We have an organized movement of 100,000 persons. If Batista continues to remain in power by force, then there is no other way but to remove him by force,'' he said.
Today, there's nothing left of the Miami that Castro visited. The Flagler Theater and most of its surroundings were bulldozed in the '60s to make way for I-95 and the various interchanges that entwine behind the downtown public library. "We lost a significant piece of history there," historian George says. "There's no doubt that Castro spent time in this part of Miami."
Try to track down Castro's past here and you'll find a trash-strewn gravel lot under the rumbling highway. Walk west to the Miami River, and you're unlikely to see another soul beyond a sleeping, shirtless hobo gently cradling a Busch tallboy like a pillow.
The aftermath: Castro left Miami that day a few thousand bucks richer and in 1958 launched a certain revolution, which you might have heard a word or two about on that visit to Versailles.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Miami Is Now One of Airbnb's Top Five American Markets
Sat., Feb. 13, 6:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
Mon., Feb. 15, 7:30pm
Thu., Feb. 18, 7:30pm
- Marco Rubio: Brokered Convention Might Pick Winner Amid GOP Chaos
- Seven Worst Bills Still Alive in the Florida Legislature