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

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Zapata wasn't the only bar owner led out in handcuffs, either. At Ricochet, cops arrested the manager and a bartender for selling booze just minutes after 3 a.m.

"The truth is that it's political," says Alan Roth, then the owner of Ricochet, which has since been sold. "There is energy and action happening in this area, and now they want to crack down?"

At least one club, the Electric Pickle, has yet to reopen after the arrests. When it was raided February 3, co-owner Tomas Ceddia was taken to jail for selling liquor outside of his license. And Goldstein, Villa 221's owner, says he lost more than $200,000 when cops arrested him and shut down his club March 24 during Ultra. He spent all week trying to secure proper permits, so when police arrived at 3:30 a.m., he figured they wanted to see his papers again. Instead, a cop placed him in handcuffs.

"What kind of police work is this?" Goldstein says, arguing that cops should have booked his wayward bartender instead. "If somebody decided to be a loose canon and serve a drink [after 3 a.m.], my personal opinion is arrest that motherfucker."

Half a dozen clubs complained to New Times that the crackdown came without warning. Police say they held a training session February 20 to discuss ramped-up inspections. The only problem: None of the Wynwood businesses was invited.

"That was a miscommunication," admits Wanda Mendez, one of the officers leading Operation Dry Hour. "We apologize for that."

But Wynwood bar owners' complaints go beyond the Miami Police Department's shock-and-awe tactics. Instead, they believe the neighborhood is being singled out by cops at the behest of their biggest rivals: 24-hour clubs downtown that are losing business to Wynwood.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this is happening now because clubs in Park West are complaining," Zapata says.

Those fears aren't without some basis. In 2000, Miami commissioners voted to create a special "entertainment district" along North 11th Street downtown where booze could be sold 24 hours a day. Following a rising tide of crime and code violations in 2010, several 24-hour clubs formed a nonprofit called the Miami Entertainment District Association (MEDA). Miami PD doesn't allow off-duty cops to work for individual clubs, so MEDA began hiring police to patrol the area.

According to Mekka's owner, Slyder, who is also MEDA's president, the nonprofit has spent nearly $500,000 on off-duty cops in the past two and a half years. Last month, MEDA paid for more than 700 hours of police patrols downtown.

The nonprofit also has some political clout. During the past election cycle, MEDA donated the maximum $500 to Commissioner Sarnoff, and Slyder says he regularly speaks with Sarnoff's staff.

But both the police and MEDA deny any type of collusion. MPD points out that 43 percent of clubs checked during Operation Dry Hour were downtown, including six MEDA members, although it appears no arrests occurred there. "This is about ensuring safety all across Miami," says MPD Commander Lázaro Ferro.

He says police began receiving complaints about illegal warehouse clubs in Wynwood last year. In September, cops shut down a pop-up club at 550 NW 29th St. that didn't have any permits. "Nobody wants another nightclub fire like in Brazil," Ferro says, referring to the inferno that killed at least 241 people this past January.

Slyder also insists MEDA has no influence over police operations. He points out that his business partner was once arrested for a noise violation. "We don't get special treatment," he says.

But Slyder does admit that MEDA has asked police and Sarnoff to clamp down on Wynwood clubs serving liquor after 3 a.m. (Ferro, the police commander, also says he's discussed Wynwood clubs with the commissioner. But when called by New Times, Sarnoff denied any knowledge of Operation Dry Hour. "I don't get involved in police business," he said.)

Bizarrely, police are now encouraging Wynwood businesses to join MEDA or at least establish a similar organization to hire off-duty cops.

On April 9, Ferro organized a meeting among police, Wynwood bar owners, and MEDA at Shots. But the only Wynwood owners who showed were Zapata and Estrada.

("I'm not going to negotiate with terrorists," another bar owner, who did not attend the meeting, said of MEDA.)

At the meeting, Slyder slammed Zapata's neighbors, calling Wynwood "the Wild, Wild West." He emphasized, however, that he'd called the meeting to dispel rumors about MEDA, not to recruit new members. But Zapata remained suspicious. Slyder had spoken repeatedly about fairness, but the entertainment district's 24-hour exception was itself an unfair advantage, Zapata said.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.