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.