Pork Pirates

"Bingo!" Rafael announces as he tools his black Dodge Dakota toward a wooden sign wired to a chainlink fence and scrawled in orange spray paint with "Se Venden Puercos."

Only a mile into Hialeah Gardens on a late February afternoon, his quest for fresh pork is nearly complete. The Cuban-born truck driver might be mistaken for an aging pro wrestler: Jose Canseco-esque arms strain the dainty sleeves of a black DKNY T-shirt, and a stiff cascade of straight black hair reaches his shoulders. Reflective Oakley sport shades that hide his crow's-feet look as small as goggles on his bovine cranium. Tomorrow is his 57th birthday, and as he has done approximately 54 times before, Rafael will celebrate the occasion with lechón. "Even if I was dead-broke, I would roast a pig," he explains on the short drive from his Hialeah home. "Even if I had to steal the fucker from the guy next door."

As he steps from his truck, he remarks somewhat fondly, "It's a dump, no?" He's right: This minuscule farm sits on a tract of land sandwiched between two man-made lakes less than a mile from the Palmetto Expressway. It consists of only a three-room tin-roofed shack, a goat field of garbage-littered black soil, and a pig pen. Three young workers in grimy T-shirts, their tasks mostly finished for the day, pick at pork platters and drink bottled Presidente. A gutted hog hangs on a splintered-wood wall, its mouth curled into an unlikely grin. The air is acrid with the twin aromas of blood and shit.


illegal slaughterhouses

After Rafael announces the reason for his visit, a worker named Miguel hops the fence of the nearby mud pen. A dozen small pigs squeal wildly and cram into corners to escape him, terror evident in their dark, dog-like eyes. Rafael is looking for an 80-pounder, and with some elbowing, a short, sturdily built carnicero named Miguel separates a skinny peach-furred sow from the pack. Rafael is handed a free beer as he watches.

At this ramshackle slaughterhouse, the animals are killed like Mafia capos. Miguel herds the chosen hog to a blood-soaked area behind the shack, where the creature digs into a metal bowl of dark-brown slop. As the hungry animal focuses on the grub — they're usually not fed for at least 24 hours before slaughter — Miguel grabs a heavy-caliber silver pistol that looks like it might be a Soviet-era antique. "You aim for an imaginary spot a little above right between the eyes," Rafael narrates. "It seems violent, but it's actually more humane."

The hog-slaying veteran nevertheless leaps when a hollow clap slumps the sow against a wall. Almost in one motion, Miguel drops the pistol onto a counter, picks up a hunter's knife, and rolls the hog onto its back. Then he burrows the blade deeply into its neck. The wound gushes blood into the dirt for about five minutes — just enough time for Rafael to pop open another beer.

Miguel and a husky co-worker expertly clean the carcass with the instruments of back-alley surgeons. After scalding the hog in a rusty tub of water heated by a propane tank, they shave its fur with pink disposable razors. They hang it from hooks, excise its steaming organs, saw off its hooves, and drop the remains into a black industrial-size garbage bag. About 20 minutes after spotting the roadside farm, Rafael heaves Sunday's party-starter onto the bed of his pickup. He pays Miguel with crisp $20 bills — six of them, a bit more than he might pay at Publix.

Today's shopping trip is light years from kosher — and a good trek from the realm of the legal. Miguel violated environmental, health, and animal cruelty laws. But it's business as usual at the tiny, often filthy farms of rural West Dade, where Cubans and other immigrants keep alive a cottage industry of unlicensed slaughter.

But please don't bother the birthday boy with your wimpy health qualms. "Dude, I just picked a pig that I saw was healthy — running around and frisky and all that — watched her be killed and watched her be cleaned," Rafael says impatiently as he heads home along Okeechobee Road. "How could it be safer than that? If you'd rather eat Hormel or something, go ahead."

A week after Rafael and friends have digested their birthday feast, a New Times reporter returns to the dusty roads of far Northwest Dade to conduct an unscientific survey. The first stop is a desolate animal farm overlooking a large blue reservoir a short horse trot from White Rock Quarries. The enclosure's lure: a sign that simply reads, "Animal."

"No problem," is the casual reply of a burly man in a cowboy hat and designer shades when asked whether he can provide a midsize hog for a hypothetical roast the next day. He is playing cards with three buddies as his watchful young daughter sucks on a Hubba Bubba candy stick.

Nearby, stacked cages contain pit bulls of all ages. Beyond that, vultures pick at leftovers in large cow-feed tubs. The farmer stands up from his game and walks 30 feet to a sty. He grabs a bored-looking pig by the ear and quotes a price: "$120, plus $10 for kill."

Are the vacas up for slaughter as well?

The farmer shows his palms: Sí, claro.

The reporter drives on to a larger operation only a few hundred feet from Cabrera's. Ignoring the kiddy pool full of mud at the center of their dung-layered pen, grunting hogs pile atop each other in an obese parody of a cheerleading pyramid. The men here play dominoes — and the place's owner casually complains of a lack of customers. Again: Of course he kills; just come back Sunday when you want the hog.

In all, New Times visits nine farms. Eight farmers agree without hesitation to slaughter a hog. And the one who doesn't has an unassailable excuse. "No puercos," he explains, holding a limp chicken's head to a loudly whirring grinding machine. "Solo pollo."

You might never know it from their candor, but what these guajiros are promising is a criminal offense. The slaughter and sale of an animal without a U.S. Department of Agriculture license merits a litany of misdemeanor charges: improper disposal of an animal, doing business without a license, creating a sanitary nuisance, and, often, animal cruelty.

It's a subject that elicits grave words from USDA spokesperson Amanda Eamich. "Our enforcement branch takes allegations quite seriously," she says. "When you go to the grocery store and see the mark of inspection on a piece of meat, you can be confident that every precaution has been taken to ensure that it's safe."

The Florida Department of Health has no record of illness stemming from eating unlicensed meat, but officials there caution such things could go unreported. That agency lists 1,294 cases of meat-based food poisoning between 2004 and 2008, including 100 sicknesses known to be caused by eating pork tainted by bacteria including everything from salmonella to staphylococcus. "If there is an infectious outbreak," in meat from an unlicensed slaughterhouse, conjectures Robert Williams, a Miami-Dade Police spokesman, "you will have no recourse."

But illegal butchery is unfamiliar to Hialeah Gardens Police Chief Van Toth, whose NW 87th Street office is only two miles from the farm where Rafael's sow was slaughtered. "That's news to me," he says. "This is the first I've heard of it."

To be fair, Northwest Dade is outlaw territory, where illegal slaughter certainly isn't the only criminal activity practiced with impunity. The farmland is marred by rampant illegal dumping: Old tires, gutted boats, ancient Jet Skis, and other discarded items lie in Calcutta-esque mounds on roadsides. At the intersection of NW 186th Street and 137th Avenue, the torched remains of vehicles are regularly found — presumably the work of thieves, drug dealers, and insurance swindlers.

On a recent weekend, all-day revelers filled the neglected area. Club ranches — sprawling cowboy bars — blasted bachata music, served beer, and roasted meat. On a dusty inlet that one resident calls "cockfight alley," men toted roosters to and from rings in specially designed narrow cases emblazoned with slogans such as "Gallo Fuerte," brazenly defying animal-cruelty laws.

Unlicensed butchery is but the most prominent tentacle of the criminal activity that has seized Northwest Dade, says Carlos, a burly Cuban-American who has spent most of his 47 years in the area. He insists on anonymity as he describes a sort of local meat mafia awash with drug cash. "The people are scared to talk because of threats," he says. "Here they'll shoot at you if they think you ratted on them. It's like a Third-World county we're in right now."

The area also hosts the county's only two legal slaughterhouses: Madson Meat in Medley and Cabrera's in Hialeah Gardens. They follow national slaughter guidelines requiring that hogs be stunned by an electric bolt and that their necks be quickly slit. The carcasses are then hung upside-down and drained of blood.

The two businesses combine to kill more than 1,500 hogs a day during the runup to nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, when Hispanic tradition calls for a hog roast. For a couple of days each year, Cabrera's and Madson are inundated with hourlong lines of customers waiting to choose their pigs, which sell for around $1.50 a pound. But the local legit slaughter business has always been hindered by unlicensed startups, says John Madson, owner of Madson Meat. "I've been in business here 38 years, and for 38 years, the illegal guys have been eating at our bottom line," he says. "Of course it affects our business. They pay no taxes, and they have no sanitary expenses. It's not a level playing field."

State food safety chief Dr. John Fruin confirms West Dade — stretching from as far south as Kendall to the northern borders of the county — is known as a problem region. "They pop up en masse from time to time," says the Tallahassee-based official. "There's quite a bit of immigrant population down there and a lot of folks that have come from countries that didn't have regulated meat inspection facilities."

Despite his official position, Fruin is sympathetic to the do-it-yourselfers: "When I was growing up, we did it in the tool shed."

On the rain-soaked early afternoon of Wednesday, October 8, following an anonymous tip, a cavalcade of green-and-white county vehicles raided a dilapidated farm on SW 197th Avenue in west Kendall. More than 20 officials from six agencies found a tract swarming with more than 470 animals — cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, and about 170 hogs. The evidence of killing was everywhere. In what appeared to be a slaughtering shed, there were butcher knives lying on a metal table next to a livestock scale. Spent shotgun shells were strewn around the grounds alongside retch-inducing cesspools of animal blood. Hog carcasses hung from walls, and among the meat found in refrigerators was what appeared to be neatly packaged horse flesh.

It was the largest illegal slaughterhouse raid in state history.

Det. Mario Fernandez, a beefy, baby-faced Miami-Dade cop who transferred from the auto theft division to agriculture crimes because he's an animal lover, was in the enforcement motorcade. He mostly remembers the smell when he stepped from his marked Dodge pickup. "It was a strong odor of death," he recalls. "It was this overpowering odor of blood and animal feces... The animals were being fed garbage and the entrails of other animals."

The farm belonged to Ramiro Perez, a lanky, high-decibel 56-year-old Cuban-American, who was soon cuffed and booked on charges of creating a sanitary nuisance and running a business without a license. "I thought they were going to arrest me for murder," he explains in Spanish three months later as his wife serves soapy cortaditos in their dimly lit, comfortable home on SW 102nd Place. "How could they send so many police for this?"

Perez survived some of the most brutal years of the Castro regime before fleeing Cuba in 1986. Thirty-six of his relatives were killed for political insubordination, he says, and he spent much of his life on the run. When you're desperate to pack fat onto your bones, no meat is taboo. "We would eat whatever we could find," he says matter-of-factly. "Horses, cats, dogs."

This past fuels his distaste for heavy-handed government regulation — and the farm raid reminds him of old-country betrayal. "My neighbors are communists," he seethes. "They spy on me and report me to the police, just like they did in Cuba."

Detective Fernandez believes Perez might have been suffering financially. "He couldn't afford to feed all of those animals," the cop says. "It costs $500 to keep a horse for a month. I think Perez was killing animals for neighbors just to keep his head above water."

This isn't the first time authorities in Perez's adopted country have cramped his style. In 1994, he was hit with a domestic violence suit, a case file that has since been destroyed and which Perez refuses to explain. Five years later, when he owned a convenience store called Perez Discount in Little Havana, he was busted by City of Miami cops for selling black-market diet pills. He claimed the several bottles found were for his wife's use, and the case was never prosecuted.

And in 2003, he was convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery after beating a man he says challenged him over a parking spot.

Rap sheets are common among farmers who have been investigated for illegal slaughter, says Detective Fernandez: "They often have priors. You might see drugs or violent crimes. And yeah, there's a fear of retaliation for residents that makes them not want to report these farms to police."

Perez insists he never killed anything on the farm unless it was for his own family's table. The animals were for sale live, he says, and the horses were for his family to ride. He sometimes spies on his former steeds inside the corral where the county now keeps them. "Those animals were my life," he laments, "and they took it from me."

He claims the confiscation has cost him $300,000, and now his padlocked farmland is up for sale.

The fines came to only $338, but Perez isn't yet clear of scrutiny. "There may be more charges forthcoming from other agencies," hints Miami-Dade Police spokesman Bobby Williams.

Perez is off the hook for one violation. It's illegal to slaughter a horse for human consumption, but "what appeared to be horse meat was found by inspectors to be beef," Fernandez says. "At this point, horse consumption in general is still mostly rumor."

That's a rumor given legs by another illegal slaughter case. Two days before last Thanksgiving, a neighbor's tip led cops to the home of unemployed 39-year-old Hialeah resident Ricardo Caonwahi. Their noses led them to his dumpster, where they found the cleaned carcass of a pony. Hialeah Police charged him with three sanitary and animal cruelty misdemeanors, alleging he had killed his own miniature horse with plans to eat it.

Caonwahi maintains he found the pony dead — and cleanly cut into four pieces — on the side of Okeechobee Road. What inspired him to wash it in his bathtub and roast it? Childhood excursions to Hialeah-area farms with his Argentine father, where Dad would order the equestrian delicacy. "Whenever you're low in fiber, just eat a piece of horse," Caonwahi casually advises. "The farmers kill it right there or keep it in fridges. You've got to know somebody... Not just anybody can go in and say, 'Hey, can I have some horse meat?'"

After cleaning the carcass, Caonwahi says, he grew squeamish and decided against eating it. The sanitary nuisance charges have been dropped, but his animal cruelty defense will soon be heard in front of a jury.

Though the county swarms with illegal butchers, instances of prosecution are rare. Neither Detective Fernandez nor USDA spokeswoman Eamich knows of other local cases. "We might get a tip that there's a possible animal slaughter setup," Fernandez explains. "When we get there, they've cleaned everything up — the blood, the knives. They can just claim they're raising animals. It's very frustrating."

Another reason might be a lack of political will. When New Times contacts Miami-Dade Commissioner Pepe Diaz, he requests more information about his district's blight and illegal slaughter problems. But New Times' offer of a guided tour is rebuffed. "Because of a very busy schedule," laments spokesperson Olga Vega, "the commissioner is going to have to decline."

Don't tell Manuel Coto enforcement is lacking. The foulmouthed, five-foot-two-inch, 240-pound angry fireplug of a hog farmer, who wears a filth-splattered cowboy hat and a V-neck T-shirt that exposes a Brillo-textured bed of gray chest hair, has only scorn for the county authorities who hound him. "I've been in this country 55 fucking years," Coto says in a distinctive deep and gravelly voice — think Tommy Lee Jones with a Cuban twang. "I pay my goddamn taxes. The way things are with the economy, they should leave me alone to support myself and my family and five or six fucking employees on top of that."

His NW 182nd Street farmhouse is an expansive lime-green, one-story rectangular structure supported on all sides by Roman columns. Perhaps this audacious architecture has inspired the extra attention he's been getting from Miami-Dade Police and code enforcement.

Since 2008, he's been hit twice with criminal charges related to his 70-head hog business: buying and selling livestock without a license, and driving his commercial truck without proper commercial markings — charges that were dropped when he forked over fines. Worse, the day before nochebuena 2008, 15 inspectors pulled up to Coto's ranch, he says. He had to slam the gates shut, surrendering commerce on the local hog farmer's equivalent of Black Friday. The lost business cost him $15,000, he says.

"They need to worry about all the thieves that steal animals," declares Coto's equally pissed wife, Marilyn. "They need to take care of the illegal dumping. We keep our property clean, and the street around us."

The Cotos complain they have been beleaguered by horse theft. And one night, apparently hungry criminals sawed off the back legs of one of their cows and disappeared with them. He claims state gun laws rob him of his right to enact frontier justice. "Because I don't have a license, I can't walk around with a rifle," he laments. "What am I going to tell a thief when I catch them: 'Wait a minute — I'm gonna go get a gun'?"

(Message to Manuel: It is legal in Florida to carry around a rifle on your own property.)

He believes he has found a way around the need for a slaughterhouse license. He'll sell you a hog live and pocket the cash while the animal is still breathing. After that, he'll offer you a "facility" for the slaughter — and any help you need. Asked if this usually means his farmhands are the ones doing the hog-wrangling and throat-slitting, Coto nods unabashedly. "I don't have any schooling," he says, "but I know the law.

He might want to brush up on some of the finer points of animal code. "I believe he's misinformed," Detective Fernandez says when told of Coto's maneuvering. "There is no technical way out of committing a crime. It's still illegal."

Either way, on the afternoon New Times tours his farm, Coto is unable to exhibit his unique evasion technique. Today there are no customers for the hundred bucks-plus he charges for a midsize pig. But he proudly shows off his stock: He sells feral hogs, recently descended from wild ancestors. Their fur is coarse and heavy, and their demeanor is more aggressive than that of their domesticated brethren. Coto's hogs constantly snarl and snap teeth under the weight of the others. Their meat tastes rangier and more complex.

Like many locally farmed hogs, Coto's pigs get their slop from the plate-to-garbage leftovers donated by nearby Latin restaurants and food-by-the-pound cafeterias. "They eat fucking rice and beans. I raise them from this big," the farmer brags, crossing his chunky arms to cradle an imaginary piglet. "I don't give them none of that shit they might inject them with at one of those big farms. People know me and trust me — that I'm going to raise a healthy pig."

Understandably, the claim that illegal pork is as healthy as the inspected variety alarms officials. "In these places, they use the same knives, the same tools, without washing them," Detective Fernandez says disgustedly. "They feed hogs guts from hogs they've just killed. You're lucky if you don't get sick."

But while state food safety chief Dr. Fruin is adamant about the environmental cost of unregulated butchers who "tend to not properly dispose of offal, hides, and head," he can't bring himself to voice a sensational sound bite condemning ingestion of unlicensed pork. "If a piece of meat is properly cooked, even from an illegal slaughter operation," he allows, "there's not much risk."

So, would he eat one of Manuel Coto's hogs? "Who's gonna cook it?" the doctor responds wryly. "If I bought the meat from one of these back-alley places, I would make sure it was a little bit on the dry side."

Raúl Musibay of 3GuysFromMiami.com, a website devoted to the how-to of hog roasts, puts it another way: "In Cuba, we don't have Sedano's and we don't have Publix. And nobody gets sick from buying a pig from a farm."

Just before sunset on a hot winter Sunday in Hialeah, 60 or so guests are squeezed onto the brown lawn behind Rafael's yellow-stucco Hialeah home. The truck driver's deep-blue Mack rests in the driveway. Frank Sinatra croons tinnily from a couple of grass-nestled metal speakers designed to look like rocks.

The centerpiece of Rafael's 57th birthday party is on the tail end of a six-hour roasting cycle. The hog from Hialeah Gardens now appears as a tableau of an unenviable fate: body flattened as if by steamroller between two sheets of chainlink fence, broken face frozen in a leer, skin roasted the mahogany hue of a South Beach tanning addict.

Johnny, Rafael's eight-year-old grandson, gingerly pulls a chunk of meat from the beast's flank using a metal fork and hams it up for whomever is watching. "Yummmm!" he moans. Rafael eschews the caja china — or "Chinese box," a method for roasting a hog in a wooden casket — instead going with a technique he learned online: fashioning a web of chainlink over two metal poles and placing the spit over a cinder-block pit.

It's a family undertaking. His wife, Laura, marinaded the pork in an onion-garlic sauce overnight, and six male relatives maneuvered the flesh into the contraption. It's been roasting since late morning.

Rafael, who wears nothing above his belt except a lei and a black tennis visor, has been chugging Bud Light all afternoon. He reclines in a beach chair like it's a luge, surrounded by spent cans. Johnny brings him a forkful of pork, and his thick eyebrows lift as he tastes the crisp bite. "The pig is ready!" he announces, hopping to his feet to remove it from its prison.

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