Latin American dictators love South Florida

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.

Gerardo Machado

Homeland: Cuba

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."

Gilberto Jordán

Homeland: Guatemala

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.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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