In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Miami’s own heart of darkness

The cops busted Freaky Fernandez last week, charging him with seven felony counts of animal cruelty. Undercover investigators from the Animal Rescue Mission had turned over to Miami-Dade police video depicting operations at Freaky’s illegal slaughterhouse operation. It was beyond ghastly.

Pigs were boiled alive. Pigs were shot with small-caliber rifles in such a careless fashion that the animals were left to die slow, brutal deaths.

Fernandez’s arrest warrant noted that on the surveillance video “pigs can be seen being dragged, hook-mouthed through the jaw, at distances of approximately 150 feet, all while the animals remain alive.” The dispassionate cop language hardly describes the nonchalant, gut-wrenching cruelty captured by the surreptitious camera. All this, mind you, in full view of customers come to buy their celebratory roasting pig.

There was something else shocking about the story by the Herald’s David Ovalle, if in a different context. It was Freaky’s address. Ovalle described the location of the filthy, unlicensed slaughterhouse: “West of the Florida Turnpike and north of Okeechobee Road — a sprawling, sparsely populated rural swath that has long been a hot spot for similar illegal operations.”

It was the C-9 Basin. Again.

Since the 1980s, newspaper and television news references have automatically attached the term “lawless enclave” to the C-9 Basin, as if this were some outlaw refuge far from civilization, rather than 20 miles from downtown Miami.

Over the years, the C-9 news stories have run along a common theme, beginning with a raid on some illegal operation. With a few arrests. With photos that beggar the imagination of those of us who had assumed that metropolitan Miami-Dade County deserved first-world status.

Another of the recurring features in these stories were the official promises that law enforcement and zoning inspectors and animal-control workers and environmental officers, with prosecutors close behind, would finally do something about the unfettered lawlessness of the C-9 Basin.

My former colleague Liz Balmaseda was out there in 1990 with county officials who were promising as much. “The C-9 is, quite literally, the new wild west,” Liz wrote. “This is not a neighborhood. It is a modern badlands, virtually ignored by the law.”

Technically, the C-9, known as the Snake Creek Basin to old-timers, was supposed to be a pristine water retention area, integral to South Florida's flood-control system. Officially, no livestock can sully these protected wetlands. County law puts strict limits on agriculture and nurseries and allows only one house for every five acres.

In 1990, Liz reported, “What really exists is quite another matter: an improvised village dotted with plywood shacks, car-repair stalls, truck lots, cockfight arenas, roadside food kiosks and full-blown cantinas, complete with public restrooms that are announced quaintly by ‘damas’ and ‘caballeros’ with corresponding illustrations. Every one of these scores of structures is illegal.”

Over the years, authorities would again venture into the C-9 Basin after inhabitants would leave the carcasses of stolen and butchered horses on one of the gravel roads that cut through the bush. Or maybe after they shot one another.

In 2010, after a spate of horse killings (and evidence accumulated by the Animal Rescue Mission), public ire forced the county to finally send police officers and county officials from some 14 agencies into the C-9 Basin, cracking down on the illegal butchering operations, handing out more than 100 civil and criminal notices of violations. “This sends a pretty strong message that we take the illegal slaughter and brutality to these animals very seriously, " Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle told reporters. "We're not going to tolerate it.”

Just five months later, I went into the C-9 Basin with a team of cops, animal control workers and zoning enforcement officials. What I saw was 1990 redux. Rogue “ranchers” had built scores of illegal shacks, barns, pens and corrals. They stole electricity with jerry-rigged hook-ups. They ran illegal restaurants and sold beer and liquor from unlicensed bars. They converted tracts of protected wetlands into parking lots for heavy equipment. They dumped trash and construction debris along wooded roads.

The county inspectors found some 30 gamecock operations, some with full fighting arenas, among 415 illegal structures. They found tumbledown shacks, some without plumbing or electricity, that leased out bunks to illegal immigrants. The place had the aura of some shabby rural outpost in Central America or the Caribbean. It was Miami-Dade County’s very heart of darkness. But the county, we were told, was finally forcing the C-9 Basin into the 21st century.

Of course, we had heard that before. Apparently, Freaky Fernandez wasn’t convinced.

“It’s all still there. Just not in the open. They’ve gone underground,” said Richard Couto, the head of the Animal Rescue Mission, the crusading outfit that has run covert operations in the C-9 Basin and similarly lawless enclaves in southwest Miami-Dade County. With such harrowing video footage, and with Couto’s knack for publicity, the police could hardly have ignored Freaky Fernandez. Otherwise, you wonder, would they have bothered?

Couto claimed that all that illegal stuff's still out there, if not quite as obvious as in 2010 — cock-fighting operations, illegal slaughterhouses where pigs and the occasional stolen horse are butchered in cruel and nasty conditions, and bloody enterprises that specialize in religious animal sacrifices. Meanwhile, he claimed, local cowboys like to gun down storks and other wading birds. He talked about illegal dumping of construction debris still occurring out there in the C-9 Basin.

Couto said he can't escape the sense that officials down at county hall have no real enthusiasm for protecting either the animals or the environment, or changing the otherworldly culture in the outlaw enclave. After three decades of rampant, blatant lawlessness out in the C-9 Basin, he may be stating the obvious.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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