A camcorder lens zooms in on a patch of tall, dry grass and palm trees in a bushy field and finds a pair of discarded nylon bags used for animal feed. Flies swarm the camera. A rooster crows in the distance. "Shit, there's maggots!" a man's voice says off-camera. A hand picks up one of the bags and empties the contents. "It is the head of an animal," the voice says, "actually the head of a goat." The hand grabs the goat's dome by one of the horns. Pulpy red flesh dangles from the neck. The hand places the head next to a mass of grayish-brown fur. "And that's his coat." The camera jerks in a semicircle to capture the image of the second bag.
"I don't know what the fuck is in here," the crack documentarian says. "But we're gonna find out." He flips the bag over. Mushy purple and gray entrails spill onto the ground. The filmmaker gags and recoils. "Oh my God," he says. "Fucking disgusting! This is what our wetlands has basically come to."
The man holding the video recorder is Richard "Kudo" Couto, a self-styled avenging angel for the C-9 Basin, a no-man's land in the northwestern fringes of Miami-Dade County. Although the basin lies just 12 miles from Hialeah, it resembles the backdrop for a Latin American version of Apocalypse Now.
To get there, travel west of Florida's Turnpike and pull off the safely paved confines of six-lane Okeechobee Road and onto two-lane streets. Farther into the heart of the basin, gravel roads turn to dirt ones with deep potholes. This is terrain best traveled on horseback, in mule-driven buggies, or Mack trucks. With suspicious glares, locals greet visitors.
Just about everything here is outside the law — fighting cocks, slaughtering horses, dumping hazardous waste. From the ramshackle houses built without permits, to the power pilfered from electrical lines, to the booze that flows freely in illegal saloons — the C-9 Basin is perhaps the closest thing in America to a Wild West outpost.
For 30 years, the C-9 dwellers — nearly all of them men — lived under their own set of rules, building a community of fewer than 10,000 that resembles the Third-World rural countrysides they left behind in Cuba, Haiti, and Central America. No one messed with their lifestyle until Couto — a bald Anglo with a soft spot for hogs and horses — huffed onto their terrain 18 months ago, determined to bring an end to the lawlessness.
This past winter, Couto spurred the government into action. On January 17, officials from 15 county, state, and federal regulatory, code, and law enforcement agencies descended on the basin. Over four days, the magnitude of the illegalities came into focus.
The county's building and neighborhood compliance office condemned more than 400 structures and issued more than 200 code violations. The state health department identified more than 100 health hazards on dozens of ranches. The county's environmental resources department issued another 100-plus violations for illegal dumping and operation of illegal slaughterhouses. In addition, officials broke up 17 cockfighting rings, shut down six ranches for operating as unlicensed restaurants, gave five ranchers notices to appear in court for criminal misdemeanors, arrested two people, and ordered six others to appear in court for animal cruelty.
Couto's vigilante activism has made him an enemy to outlaws and the law. He has brought the heat down on the offenders and publicly criticized law enforcement's indifference to policing the C-9, which has been largely ignored for more than a quarter-century.
"I knew that, because of politics and corruption, it would take somebody outside of a government agency to do something about the C-9 Basin," Couto says. "I did what had to be done."
An aqua green Ford F-150 slowly bounces over the narrow, pock-marked limestone road leading to Luis Delgado's five-acre lot. Stray dogs and puppies, coats caked with ash-colored mud, dart around the truck as it rolls to a stop near a warped wooden gate with a homemade "No Trespassing" sign. Delgado steps out of the driver's side of the four-by-four, its rear bumper adorned with a blue Bush-Cheney '04 sticker.
Green Rolling Rock beer suspenders press against the roly-poly Republican's striped polo shirt. He wipes sweat from his brow on his mud-stained blue jeans.
The 78-year-old retired trucker — who purchased the land for $70,000 in 1985 — says he excavated a 1.2-acre lake and cleared the remaining 3.8 acres for his pigs and goats. Delgado leases some of the land to Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants who raise roosters inside tin-roofed wood shacks. "When I first came out here, my property was nothing more than a melaleuca jungle," Delgado says. "I made it livable."
Delgado limps over to an abandoned school bus that he turned into a trailer home, complete with a comfy twin mattress and an air-conditioning unit attached to one of the windows. "During the summer months, that AC unit came in handy," he says.
Delgado and his neighbors — many of them Cuban rancheros — began migrating to the basin in the early 1980s. Out here, land is cheap and plentiful, and with little government oversight, the basin's inhabitants could erect shacks, stables, and livestock pens. They could also operate in a black market, where the bartering of common items such as eggs and milk, as well as trading animals, is part of life.
Soon the C-9 had become an outpost for immigrants from the remote parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, a place where they could re-create their lives in el campo, or the rural country.
Born in Bauta, a regional trading center for local farmers 25 miles southwest of Havana, Delgado and his family fled Cuba in 1964. After working 20 years as a trucker, he returned to his roots in the C-9, following in the footsteps of his father, a cattle rancher who sold beef for a living.
And on this especially bright March morning, Delgado could well be back on the ranch. "Oye, campesinos!" he yells when he spots his neighbors Luis Rodriguez and Heriberto Viña, riding their horses, a brown mare named Guajira and a white stud with gray spots named Koki. Rodriguez and Viña trot over. The ranchers are cousins who grew up in a rural section of Havana and came over on the Mariel Boatlift.
"We came out here 15 years ago," says Rodriguez, who wears a black ten-gallon cowboy hat. "We grew up around horses. Out here, I have a horse, my daughter has a horse, and my grandson has a pony."
Rodriguez and Viña invite Delgado and his guest to their ranch for some cold Coronas. A dozen roosters and chickens sit inside a large wire pen near a row of stables that can hold as many as 40 horses. To make ends meet, Rodriguez and Viña, who work as roofers, rent the spare stables to seven other horse owners.
Rodriguez's living quarters consist of a two-room, wood-framed structure with flooring made of large ceramic tiles, the kind often found inside new subdivisions in Doral. Like most of the structures in the C-9, the tiny abode and its accompanying stables were built without permits. Viña says he lives in Homestead but stays at the ranch on weekends. "Over the past decade and a half, I estimate we have invested more than $30,000 in horses and stables," he says.
He points to an army of ducks and hens waddling and clucking through the front yard of his neighbor Guillermo Bejerano's casita. "That old man has been here for 15 years too," he says. "Like us, he just wants a place in the country to live peacefully."
The 65-year-old Bejerano dumps a stew of potatoes, rice, carrots, peas, chicken, and pork onto a concrete slab. The ducks and hens don't mind engaging in some fowl cannibalism and dig into the slop. Bejerano's three dogs join the feast. Every morning at 6 o'clock, Bejerano says, he drives his beat-up Ford truck to a Sedano's supermarket in Hialeah. "I come back here and cook them their food," he says with a slight lisp due to missing front teeth. "I love taking care of my animals."
Dressed in a blue and red striped polo shirt and gray dress slacks, Bejerano shuffles to his back yard to collect eggs from the hens inside a coop. He calls himself "un guajiro del monte," or country peasant, who came on the Mariel Boatlift after serving a prison term for trying to escape Cuba on a raft. "I never liked the system of government over there," he says, placing 14 eggs inside a plastic bag. "The communists took all my roosters and chickens. That won't happen here."
On an early weekday afternoon in April, Couto swivels in an office chair in the converted garage that serves as his yuppie bat cave. Chased by enemies from the C-9, Couto, age 39, stays on the move. He has relocated five times in the past year and currently lives in an elegant bungalow in a moneyed Miami neighborhood.
The white-painted wood walls are covered in maps of the C-9, newspaper clippings, and stomach-turning photos of eviscerated horses. A mug shot is circled on a New Times clipping about a racetrack horse trainer suspected of selling thoroughbreds to slaughter. Couto has scrawled the word target above the photo. On a coat rack hangs his commando gear: black and green SWAT-style utility vests and a hunting jacket adorned with fake leaves. On a shelf rests the Halloween-quality shoulder-length brunet wig he wears on reconnaissance missions.
Couto understands why the Cuban cowboys of the C-9 Basin would be thrilled to see him dead or at least very badly maimed. He is the tree-hugger who has never been driven by real hunger, the outsider playing Eliot Ness at their expense. "I'm taking their livelihood away; I'm taking away their way of life," he says unapologetically. "They have no conception that they've done anything wrong."
The son of a Rhode Island lumber executive, Couto grew up dyslexic and received a special education in the same private school Bill Cosby's kid and a Johnson & Johnson heir attended. Even as a kid, he believed he could save animals through wealth: At age 8, he promised his mother he would buy a farm to rescue animals from abusive pet shops.
After moving to Miami in 1999, Couto made a quick fortune flipping fixer-uppers in prebust Miami. The bachelor lived in a $3 million home on Miami Beach's North Bay Road and sought thrills racing motocross bikes and diving with sharks.
And then, in 2007, Couto began volunteering at the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) ranch in Northwest Miami-Dade. He donated money to the nonprofit and wanted to see where his money was going. As his real estate business withered with the market, Couto found himself at the ranch every day, feeding horses and cleaning stables. He joined the agency's board.
Then came the call from police that would turn shutting down the C-9 Basin into his very own extreme sport.
The C-9 Basin (C stands for canal; 9 is the canal's number) was never conceived as a human habitat. It was established in the late '60s as an ecological buffer zone between the Everglades and sprawling development in Miami-Dade County. The 3,800 acres of wetlands are a protected habitat, where wood storks, herons, hawks, and other native species can thrive without fear of human intrusion.
The land is zoned for agricultural use, with property owners allowed to build one house per acre and use the land to raise livestock or grow plants, fruits, and vegetables.
But the basin is a far cry from an idyllic country landscape. Like any uncharted, unregulated Western frontier, the C-9 attracted a criminal element that turned it into a lawless ranchero outpost where even cops would not dare tread without a battalion of government agencies backing them up.
For every ranchero like Delgado trying to survive, there are others who behave like outlaws in a frontier town. One of Delgado's neighbors, a man named Helio Dominguez, was cited eight times between 2002 and 2006 for operating a cockfighting ring.
Gregorio Arencibia, whose ranch sits behind Dominguez's place, was arrested in 2003 on animal cruelty charges for starving ten goats, one of which died. In January, the 79-year-old was one of six property owners busted for converting his ranch into a full-blown entertainment center, complete with kitchens and fully stocked bars to serve food and booze.
Known as Okeechobee Ranch, the place was outfitted with a rodeo ring where rancheros could rope cows on horseback, along with a Spanish-tile-roofed gazebo where private parties were catered with whole roast pigs slaughtered on site. The bars were made of unvarnished wood and had coolers to hold beer.
Officials also found that pilfered electricity powered much of the basin. Labyrinths of cords were spliced and rerouted from Florida Power & Light meters — a mess that the company is still attempting to sort out. "You try to trace the cords, and they go through other people's properties, up and down trees, around three corners, and through a shack until it ends up powering a property five acres away," says Charlie Danger, Miami-Dade's building and neighborhood compliance director.
That same month, New Times reported that ATV-riding gunslingers were performing drive-bys on endangered wood storks. The gangly white water birds — in the midst of a comeback after their numbers had dropped below 2,500 — had become target practice for drunken revelers.
In addition, cockfighting rings flourished with impunity. This past September, county police officers, while on a rare patrol through the C-9, came across a two-and-half-acre ranch. The cops heard the clamor of howling men and screeching roosters. One of the cops peered through a broken slat on the side of a rustic wood house.
Some 200 spectators were standing or seated on wood benches around the ring. They were drunk on bloodlust, cheering for the two roosters going at it in the ring. During the police raid, only ten participants were collared and 100 caged roosters were confiscated. The ten men were convicted earlier this month on felony animal cruelty charges. But none of the defendants will serve jail time. Eight must perform 100 hours of community service, and the remaining two must put in 200 hours because of previous convictions.
A main reason the C-9 outlaw culture has flourished is that the law-abiding citizens of the basin are afraid to snitch on the law breakers, residents say. Delgado says he has been robbed twice on his property, once at gunpoint, but he never reported the crimes.
Jose, a raspy-voiced farmer sprinkling feed into a chicken coop in the front yard of his trailer, says local, county, and federal officials are not interested in stamping out the illegal underworld. "For the past 30 years, the C-9 Basin has been a den of corruption," says Jose, who asked that his last name not be used. "It is a sewer of criminal activity. It is like a Third-World country out here."
For decades, selling animal flesh for human consumption has been the primary source of income for many of the C-9 residents. Delgado, for one, raised goats and hogs, which are always in high demand in Cuban-rich Miami. A card he shows claims he's been a registered livestock dealer since 1996. "I've had 1,000 pigs throughout the years," Delgado says. "I'd bring them down from Georgia and North Carolina to sell them here."
But the farms in the basin that operate as slaughterhouses are not licensed by the USDA, and most of them violate a host of business, code, health, and environmental regulations. For years, the dirt roads had run red with blood from the wholesale illegal slaughtering of chickens, goats, pigs, and horses.
The slaughtering finally grabbed headlines last year, when a different kind of carcass began turning up everywhere: skinned, expertly butchered, and splayed on the floors of stable stalls. Intestines were removed and heaped into garbage bags later found tossed into brush. The hacked bodies were charred by marauders armed with lighters, or the skeletons were found in plastic bins alongside empty Heineken bottles — evidence of an invitation-only roadside shindig. Even more brazen, men in pickup trucks were driving around the C-9, offering residents the lean flesh out of iced coolers. Their bargain asking price for a pound of horse meat: $7 a pound.
Since January 2009, at least 24 horses have been found butchered in South Florida, most of them in or near the C-9 Basin. It's not a new serial killer preying on Northwest Miami-Dade's equine population. The horse-meat black market has existed for decades. But lately, the killers seem to have become more audacious, and reporters have begun paying attention.
Credit the latter to tireless self-publicist Couto. He has shown a knack for dramatically hugging an orphaned foal just as an Associated Press photographer shows up, and then posting the resulting article on his Facebook page for 1,200 rabid followers to forward along.
His moment of revelation came July 8, 2008, when he accompanied Miami-Dade cops and a couple of SPCA volunteers to a farm in the C-9 just a few miles from the nonprofit's rescue ranch. They were investigating a report of a horse in distress.
Couto was stunned to find an unlicensed slaughterhouse in full, filthy operation. Veal cages housing calves bordered expansive hog-slaughter sheds manned by blood-drenched butchers. The animals were fed restaurant leftovers, and their sludge-like drinking water was kept in rusted barrels. Couto used a stick to dredge one barrel and drag dead birds from the bottom, he says. "It was the most vile farm I had ever seen."
The property belongs to Manuel Coto, a Danny DeVito-shaped fireplug of a farmer who has become the unwilling poster boy for illegal slaughter. As the farmer stewed behind the investigators, Couto gravitated toward one of several sickly-looking horses, a bone-thin brown-and-white gelding with weary but intelligent eyes. The horse was in miserable condition. It's right front leg was badly shattered, and its throat was infested with strangles — a buildup of mucus so massive its skin had burst in several places. The gelding was "days away from dying," Couto surmises.
Manuel Coto didn't protest while the SPCA volunteers loaded the animal onto a trailer. Couto adopted the horse and later discovered its elite pedigree. Its name was Freedom's Flight, descendant of Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Secretariat and half-brother of Ice Box, which finished second in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
Couto was galvanized. He immediately asked to become the region's lead SPCA horse-slaughter investigator. "It became his mission," SPCA president Jeanette Jordan says. "He fell in love with the horse, and he wanted to know how it went from being a valuable racehorse to being on a slaughter farm."
Couto is more blunt: "I was completely consumed."
From the beginning, Couto says, he was rebuffed by Miami-Dade cops who showed no interest in a prolonged investigation into the C-9 Basin. So he made the quest his own. He decided to catalog just how many laws were being broken on each farm in the area. His commando tactics made his SPCA peers very nervous.
His nights began on the outskirts of the basin, where he'd hide his black Range Rover in brush and unload his motocross bike. Wearing full assault gear and shoe polish blacking out his face, he'd buzz into the basin, using county property record print-outs as his guide. Like an urban ninja, he'd climb over barbwire-topped fences or under gates, ignoring "No Trespassing" signs.
Eventually, he probably marauded through every slaughterhouse in the basin. He tossed tools into swamps and stole log books with handwritten sales records and clients' phone numbers. Couto kept files on each property, scrawled with livid notes such as "Fucking disgusting!" or "Slaughter! Shut the fuckers down!"
Later, he'd call the landlords of the slaughter properties and similarly document their reactions to his discoveries: "Told them about slaughter. They could give a shit!"
Getting chased by armed-to-the-teeth guajiros became a common occurrence. Couto claims he's been shot at 20 times but never hit. He kept the safety off on his .45 handguns, loaded with "big, fat bullets." If he did have to pop off on an irate farmer, Couto wasn't aiming to wound.
Not surprisingly, cops do not approve of Couto's renegade tactics. In July 2009, he was questioned about his theft of a black-and-white pig from a suspected slaughterhouse. No charges were filed after the farm's owner, Jose Mateen, declined to press charges.
"Fuck it — yeah, I took Oreo," Couto says of the pig. He explains it was penned on a slaughterhouse table, where it was "splattered with blood and witnessing killing all day. That's animal torture."
Miami-Dade Police spokesman Robert Williams says his department is "investigating" Couto, adding that his penchant for trespassing is "a crime and incredibly dangerous. If he was to get shot, he would have no recourse."
On November 7, 2009, it became clear just how dangerous C-9's outlaws could be. For about a year, a Cuban-born horse lover had been feeding information about horse-slaughter suspects to both Couto and Miami-Dade Police. That day, Ricardo (not his real name) was driving out of the Krome Avenue stables where he kept his three horses when he was suddenly cut off by a Napoleonic tough guy in a pickup truck.
Alexis Camino, a short, bulky 27-year-old convicted drug dealer, jumped from the truck and told Ricardo that "he wanted to talk to him." When Ricardo got out of his truck, Camino exploded. "I'm the one who's been killing the horses in the area," he seethed in Spanish to Ricardo, according to a police report, "and I'm going to continue." He punched the lanky Ricardo to the ground and repeatedly landed his cowboy boots to Ricardo's face and ribs. Camino then pulled Ricardo's left pinkie until it broke.
Camino was arrested and faces battery charges. Today, Ricardo estimates he suffered 20 broken bones in the beatdown and was left with a gaping wound on the kicked side of his face. He now carries his handgun on him at all times, never making the mistake of leaving it in his truck again.
Though Ricardo has no problem with his name being published, his wife is worried that the horse-slaughtering goons will go after their family next. Ricardo is done cooperating with cops, his wife says: "He needed to make a choice — his family or his horses."
South Florida SPCA honchos were also spooked by news of the assault. On November 12, president Jordan sent an email to the agency's board, announcing that due to "the ramifications of exposing illegal slaughter of farm animals in South Florida, I have decided that for the time being we will take a less public role in outing these despicable practices."
The next day, Couto resigned from the SPCA, calling it "the hardest thing I've ever had to do." He founded his own one-man nonprofit, called Animal Recovery Mission, or ARM. He adopted the nickname given to him by the Spanish-speaking butchers who couldn't pronounce his last name: "Kudo." Then he went back to work raiding farms and collecting evidence, only this time as a renegade.
This past October, Couto had attempted to coordinate a meeting with several local agencies, including Miami-Dade Building and Neighborhood Compliance, Miami-Dade Police, Hialeah Police, and Hialeah Commissioner Pepe Diaz, to present his findings on the C-9 Basin. The invited brass had all ignored him or canceled. So Couto took his quest to state officials instead.
In December, he met with assistant state attorneys at their headquarters in downtown Miami. He showed them videotapes and photos of the slaughter tables and cockfighting setups he had found in his raids. He argued that with the C-9 Basin's zoning laws, everything in the area — from the bustling bars to the oil-drenched semi-truck parking lots — violated the law.
Apparently, he struck a chord. On December 17, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle sent a letter to the heads of several county agencies declaring that her office had "received certain information about unlicensed and illegal slaughter houses [being operated] in a barbaric... open and flagrant manner. This is in complete disregard for the health and safety of the public," the letter read. Then she asked the officials to shut down the illegal slaughterhouses.
On the chilly, bright, early morning of Tuesday, January 12, 15 agencies clogged the C-9 Basin with their official cars and began the area-wide raid that would spell the end of Miami-Dade's most lawless outpost.
Delgado, Rodriguez, and Viña were among the C-9 rancheros cited for various infractions. "There were so many cops and inspectors out here," Delgado says, "you would have thought they had found the Taliban in here."
A month later, the cousins were tearing down their stables and loading the wood pieces into horse and U-Haul trailers. Rodriguez used a hammer to pull apart the beams supporting his stables. Two days before, he had already transported his two horses and his grandson's pony to Clewiston, Florida, where he and Viña had found a new patch of land for their el campo lifestyle.
Viña complains everything was fine in the C-9 until a certain bald avenger ruined it for them. "It's all that guy Kudo's fault," he grouses.
"He was on the news about how he was going to end all the slaughtering out here. He claims to be an inspector, but he isn't... He's nobody."
The scrawny ranchero says he wishes he could meet Couto so he could share with him a popular yet vulgar Cuban expression: "Me cago en su madre."
From the back seat of a reporter's Toyota Corolla, Couto surveys the wreckage like a victorious commander entering the city he vanquished. (He has ditched the Range Rover, which these days has become a bullet magnet in the C-9.)
"This was a big-money operation," he muses, ducking his head below the window as the car passes the remains of a bar being sulkily dismantled by former operators. "So sorry, motherfuckers."
He's in full Kudo mode, wearing his cheap shoulder-length brown wig and a trucker's hat over his bald pate — "They all know to shoot at the first white bald guy they see" — and every so often speaking officiously into a camcorder in his right hand.
In the front passenger seat sits his lumber executive father, also named Richard, a New Hampshire resident whose son has absconded him from his Miami vacation. "This is not what I had in mind," grumbles the stiffly-seated, understated man, who's dressed like he's ready for a day of yachting.
Junior directs the car to the front gate of a former slaughterhouse and, within moments, is scuttling under a fence, ignoring "No Trespassing" signs.
"Kudo with ARM," he tells his camcorder as he saunters casually around the property, aiming the lens at a still-standing cockfighting ring. "This place has been here for north of 30 years — ripping animals apart, forcing them to fight, forcing them to live in tiny, confined areas."
Suddenly, a burly man cleaning debris a few hundred feet away booms at Couto in curse-laden Spanish. Couto scrambles under the fence and back into the car, where his father sits, frozen.
After a few similar adventures — one involving Couto using his bare hands to rip open a garbage bag full of horse entrails, filling the Corolla with an abattoir's stench — he stops to capture on-camera a cluster of signs scrawled in English and topped with a Cuban flag: "Respect our business and properties"; "Corrupt Miami"; "This is unacceptable, Stop the abuse!"
"Well, too bad," Couto tells his camera. "This is definitely over for good, and they know it."
Even as the C-9 Basin comes down piece by piece, Couto has found other ways to keep himself busy. He's attempting to infiltrate a cockfighting ring in South Miami. He claims to be working with CNN on exposing Florida's booming bestiality-tourism industry. And the displaced guajiros of the C-9 Basin aren't exactly going to find office jobs and Brickell condos.
Couto has watched them slowly move operations to a nearby area, which he asks New Times not to identify: "They don't know I'm on to them yet," he says. Richard Sr. remains tight-lipped throughout most of the car ride. But when they return to the Range Rover, he demands of his son: "Do you have a death wish?"
Kudo doesn't hesitate. "This is something I'm willing to die for."