South Beach Menace

Just four blocks from Ocean Drive and haute high-priced South Beach eateries China Grill and Tuscan Steak, a rail-thin homeless man sat in the trash-strewn parking lot of a Walgreens this past December 28. Reynaldo "Flaco" Martin took a swig of vodka, then noticed Carlos Bustamante, a fellow Cuban-American in his sixties who friends call "el Pescador."

"Do you know where I can find a revolver?" Martin inquired.

"What do you need a gun for?" replied Bustamante, who was walking past the store.

"Because I want to kill someone," Martin shot back.

"You're looking at 60, 80 years if you go shoot someone with a gun," Bustamante said.

A couple of hours later, at approximately 3:10 p.m., Martin, a 35-year-old felon whose skeletal appearance belied his bubbling, alcohol-fueled rage, staggered through an alley to the twin fenced-in apartment buildings on Fifth Street and Michigan Avenue. He was bellowing obscenities: "A mi la pinga!"

Martin stumbled past Hector Serna, the manager of 545 Michigan, who was walking his three dogs. Then he spotted Hipolito Hernandez on the balcony outside a second-floor apartment next door. "I'll cut your face!" he screeched.

Hernandez, a husky 29-year-old Puerto Rican handyman, ignored Martin. He was chatting with some friends. His fetching girlfriend, Isabel Morales, was inside feeding their one-month-old son, Saul.

A little more than a year before, Martin had harassed Morales, saying "he wanted to do some pretty nasty sexual stuff to me," Morales says. Hernandez demanded he leave her alone. Martin never got over it.

That day on South Beach, Martin shouted "puta," "maricón, " and other colorful Spanish insults at Hernandez and his companions. He challenged all three to street combat. "I'll fuck all of you up!" Martin shouted.

Then he retrieved a black-handled knife from behind a dumpster.

The area where Martin stashed his knife is the little-known dark side of South Beach. Geographically, the neighborhood runs from Euclid Avenue to Michigan Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets. It includes a community center, a Catholic church, several small grocery stores, a Laundromat, and a Latin cafeteria. When he's done patrolling with the Miami Beach Police, Shaquille O'Neal passes by on his way home to Star Island. Gloria and Emilio Estefan also drive past Martin's stomping grounds on the way to their Ocean Drive restaurant, Lario's on the Beach.

The area comprises mostly rundown Art Deco apartment buildings that are home to predominantly working-class immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Central American nations such as Honduras and El Salvador. The two-story building where Hipolito Hernandez and Isabel Morales reside has a peeling, faded white exterior with blue trim.

In the past year alone, Miami Beach police have made 600 arrests in the six-square-block area. There were 135 drug-related busts, as well as 58 for assault, robberies, and weapons violations. The remaining incidents mostly included public intoxication, disorderly conduct, petty larceny, and simple battery.

"It has been hard to clean up that little area," said Miami Beach Commissioner Matti Bower, who is running for mayor this year.

Why? For one thing, the city can't legally ban homeless people from coming to Miami Beach, Bower says. She adds that the neighborhood is close to the MacArthur Causeway, the city's main entry point from mainland Miami.

For years, Bower continues, the community center drew homeless transients because it had been largely abandoned. "No one took care of the property," she says. "The open area in the front provided a place for the homeless and other people with nothing to do."

Another factor contributing to the neighborhood's unpleasant state has been property owners who are not interested in investing in their assets. "People don't want to fix up their buildings," Bower says.

Police records show that crimes in the area have extraordinary range — there's a valet parking company owner who rammed his SUV into a motorcyclist; there are street brawls and purse snatchings galore. One thing many of these cases have in common: They're hard to prosecute. Witnesses disappear, victims change their minds about complaining, and judges hand out light sentences like candy at Halloween.

Some examples:

This past March 18 two homeless men got into an argument on the 600 block of Euclid Avenue. One of them, Roberto Pastor, pulled a pistol from his waistband and shot the other in the groin. Pastor fled the scene before police arrived. The cops apprehended Pastor two months later while he was drinking on Eleventh Street and Washington Avenue. However prosecutors dropped the attempted murder charge against Pastor because he had thrown his firearm into Biscayne Bay and the victim had left town.

This past April 8, 53-year-old Miguel Angel Salazar held his mother against her will inside her apartment on Alton Road. According to the arrest affidavit, Salazar blocked the front door with his body while he walloped his madre on the cheek with a clenched fist. When she tried to push past him, her son threw her to the ground. Salazar was arrested on Jefferson Avenue on domestic violence and false imprisonment charges. They were dropped when his mother refused to cooperate with prosecutors.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.