Sweetwater, Florida was founded by a band of Russian circus midgets just before the outbreak of World War II. Hoping to transform their patch of lush swampland into an international midget haven, they threw up a handful of tiny houses and planted vegetables.
Floods and wartime belt-tightening put the kibosh on their tiny dreams. Some of them ended up working in naval shipyards, toiling in the tight hull spaces of Uncle Sam's fleet. Others returned to the big top, abandoning their handful of little houses to the elements. Water has washed all traces of the midgetopia back into the swamp.
Local lore has it that the body of one of the founders (killed in a deadly domestic spat) remains interred under the town's main drag and the tortured soul of that hastily buried midget has caused decades of discord.
"We have a saying in Spanish: small town, big hell," comments 28-year-old Marcos Villanueva, who rarely leaves his house without a gun, and whose tires have been slashed three times in the past two months. "We have one more saying," he adds. "He who works in hell knows the devil."
Villanueva is running for mayor of Sweetwater against incumbent Manuel Maroño. Maroño, a Cuban-American tow company owner who patrols the city with a police radio in his SUV, has virtually ruled this tiny town for the past six years. He held his seat in 2003 with 93 percent of the vote.
Though you'd expect the stakes to be pretty low Sweetwater consists of just a half-square mile north of Florida International University Villanueva's ire and determination have yielded an epic battle. With only two weeks until election day, allegations of tossed rats, sleazed absentee ballots, and anonymous threats have consumed the warring factions.
The bad blood goes back a long way.
Villanueva grew up with his mother right outside Sweetwater and still treasures bucolic memories of riding his horse, Rockefeller, through town. He dropped out of South Miami High School to help support his family after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. At age nineteen, he spent six months working for Miami-Dade County Park and Recreation before resigning the reason, he says, is that he was too immature.
Soon afterward he took a job as a dispatcher for Sweetwater's police department. In April 2003 Mayor Maroño recommended that he be promoted to full-time officer. Two months later a high-speed police chase rolled through town on the Turnpike. The suspect, an armed robber named Eduardo Valdez, had been dodging cops in a rented Land Rover. After radioing for approval, Villanueva joined the fray, traveling at speeds, he guesses, of up to 120 mph.
Villanueva caught up to Valdez on Kendall Drive. Desperate to lose the officer, the robber sideswiped his car, sending it careening at a 50-foot royal palm and into oncoming traffic. Villanueva was badly injured. He recalls Maroño visiting the hospital. "Here I am with three herniated discs, in terrible pain, and he starts yelling at me: 'How are you going to pay for my car? Where did you learn to drive? You're done.' "
Maroño recalls the conversation as brief and caring. "I was concerned for his well-being," the mayor says. "I never even got out of my car."
Villanueva resigned and took a job as a Miami Beach Police officer. In March 2004, after two disciplinary reports mysteriously turned up in his Sweetwater personnel file, Miami Beach PD accused him of "falsifying and omitting information." He resigned from the Beach force.
About six months ago Villanueva and a slew of disgruntled town residents and employees began waging a guerrilla campaign against Maroño. So far they've raised but $7021, compared to Maroño's $25,000. While many of their campaign signs have inexplicably disappeared, they've made up for the difference by going door to door with a thick stack of applications for absentee ballots. So far 1300 have been cast nearly double the number from 2003.
Last Thursday things got ugly. A squad of Miami-Dade Public Corruption Unit officers and federal postal inspectors swarmed a car carrying 78-year-old city Commissioner Manuel Duasso and Isolina Maroño, the mayor's mother and campaign manager. They were stopped just outside a large trailer park off of NW 112th Avenue. Photographs were taken. Questions were asked. After about an hour, Duasso and Isolina were released.
Neither Duasso or Isolina Maroño could be reached for comment, but the mayor contends the officers confiscated seven sealed absentee ballots and returned them to voters. Miriam Gordils of the Miami-Dade Public Corruption Unit told New Times that the matter remains under investigation but declined further comment. Prosecutors studied, then dropped the matter.
The accusations, however, just get weirder. Villanueva has advised voters to mail their ballots from Hialeah, fearing Maroño's influence at the town's only post office.
"That's just dirty politics," says Maroño, who insists he won't say anything about his opponent.
But Jane Parra, a campaigner in the Villanueva court, alleges that Maroño has called her candidate a homosexual and a child molester. "I hate [Maroño] more than anyone in the world," she said.
Lawrence Churchman, another campaigner in the Villanueva camp, says he has spent time tailing Maroño's people with binoculars. He suspects that a city commissioner loyal to the incumbent mayor hurled a dead rat onto his driveway. "It was meant to intimidate me," he says.
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Maroño's supporters also allege there have been dirty tricks. "This is the filthiest campaign I've ever seen," says Police Chief Robert Fulgeira, who has been canvassing on behalf of the mayor, who is his close friend.
Fulgeira further alleges that everyone has been affected by the fallout; he says even the mother of his administrative sergeant, Rolando Perez, has been receiving threatening calls from blocked numbers. "They've been telling her in Spanish, 'We're gonna sweep the streets with your face.'"
When asked about the matter, Perez denied it had occurred. "Why would the chief say something like that?"
Villanueva and Maroño are both confident that they will win. We'll find out who's right on May 8.