Wynwood Bar Owners Say There's a Conspiracy to Kill the Neighborhood

The "blowjob shots" were just beginning. It was after 3 a.m., and Shots Miami was living up to its name. Hundreds of customers sucked down slugs of brightly colored booze — some from between each other's legs. All night long, partiers had flocked to the neon-painted bar on NW 23rd Street to don costumes and play drinking games. Like the rest of Wynwood, Shots was booming.

Amid the revelry, no one paid much attention to two men sidling up to the bar. They were clean-cut, in their 30s, and dressed in jeans and button-down shirts. After checking their watches, they ordered a pair of Red Stripes.

Moments later, Shots owner Oscar Zapata glanced at the surveillance cameras in his office and saw squad cars pull up. The 31-year-old raced outside. Cops were everywhere, pushing patrons out. When Zapata explained he was one of the owners, police slapped handcuffs on him and sat him next to the three bartenders who had served the undercover officers their beers. Zapata was hauled to jail, where he spent 15 hours — all for selling booze at 3:10 a.m.

Zapata and his bartenders weren't the only ones busted. Eleven other Wynwood bar owners or employees were arrested in February and March during Operation Dry Hour, when cops raided or inspected 17 establishments. Half a dozen were shut down. At least one has yet to reopen.

To Wynwood's bar owners, the crackdown was a strategic assault against the up-and-coming neighborhood arranged by their competitors — the 24-hour downtown clubs. It's more than an idle conspiracy theory: Those megaclubs have a cozy relationship with police thanks to a half-million bucks they've paid to off-duty officers for security in the past two years, not to mention political clout with Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.

"This whole operation isn't about safety; it's about pursuing certain clubs," says Aaron Goldstein, whose club, Villa 221, was shut down by police. "The entertainment district is behind it. But fuck it. If Space and Mekka want to bully everybody out of the game, they are going to get an eye-opener."

Those downtown clubs, though, counter that they just want their competitors to play by the rules. Miami police, citing illegal all-night warehouse parties, argue that Wynwood needs reining in.

"Wynwood is out of control," says Michael Slyder, Mekka's co-owner. "The law is the law. It's black-and-white."

One things is clear: Wynwood's wild days are over. The neighborhood that made its name with edgy, all-night partying suddenly must deal with a new reality. And it's not yet clear whether it will survive the shock.

Twenty-three years ago, the neighborhood faced much different problems. Then mostly poor and Puerto Rican, Wynwood exploded into flames and riots December 3, 1990, after Miami police officers were acquitted of fatally beating local drug dealer Leonardo Mercado.

Over the past decade, however, developers led by SoBe savior Tony Goldman bought empty warehouses and invited in art galleries. Art Basel's satellite fairs brought investors. In 2008, the first fancy restaurant, Joey's, moved in. Then came graffiti murals, bars, gentrification, and the ever-increasing madness of Second Saturday Art Walk.

By 2012, Wynwood was again exploding — not with riots but with crowds of rich and hip visitors. The New York Times even christened it "the next Meatpacking District," after the swanky Manhattan neighborhood.

Zapata wanted in on the action. The half-Cuban, half-Colombian whiz kid comes from a family of entrepreneurs in Kendall. After studying computer engineering at Florida International University, he began designing cooling systems for local gaming company Alienware. But the pay sucked, so Zapata returned to FIU for a business degree. David Estrada, another ex-Alienware employee, had visited a bar in Medellín where customers had to dress up or do stunts with each shot. Soon the two friends were scouting for a location of their own.

With cheaper rent and a mellower vibe than downtown, Wynwood was an easy choice. Initially, Zapata and Estrada thought they could start the bar with just $40,000. "It was a quick reality check," Zapata says with a laugh. Instead, the duo ended up investing nearly half a million dollars into Shots. But it's more than money on the line for the young entrepreneur. With an infant daughter, he can't afford to fail.

Shots opened December 4 at the height of Art Basel. Police and code enforcement officers arrived just three days later with warnings. "They gave us a laundry list of things to do," Zapata says. "And we did them."

So Zapata was shocked to find himself in the slammer February 24. He doesn't deny that Shots was selling booze past 3 a.m., but he says everyone was doing it. "They never enforced this shit before," he says.

Indeed, beginning in early February, cops inspected more than a dozen other Wynwood bars as part of Operation Dry Hour. Some, like Bardot on North Miami Avenue, were forced to close at 3 a.m. despite having a 5 a.m. liquor license. "It's annoying," owner Amir Ben-Zion says. "The wrong name was written on some document somewhere. I wish they would be more flexible and treat us like businesspeople."