Police early Friday raided a suspected horse slaughterhouse operation in rural Miami-Dade, arresting an elderly man accused of selling undercover cops the illegal meat for $7 a pound.
The case is believed to be the first time in South Florida that investigators documented the actual sale of horse meat in the highly secretive black market. In recent years, the carcasses of butchered horses, their meat likely bound for dinner tables, have been found across South Florida, particularly in rural swaths of western Miami-Dade County.
Taken into police custody Friday: Manuel Coto-Martinez, 70, who is charged with selling illegal horse meat, a state felony that is punishable by at least one year in prison.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle called the case “the first successful infiltration … into the extremely close-knit and secretive world” of horse meat sales.
“The unregulated slaughter of horses and un-inspected meat presents a real safety and food security issue that puts lives in jeopardy and our agricultural community at risk,” Rundle said.
There are no facilities in the United States that are regulated to slaughter horses for human consumption, authorities said. The handful of previous arrests in Miami-Dade have been only for possession of illegal horse flesh, which is a misdemeanor.
Miami-Dade police raided the sprawling ranch at 13202 NW 182nd St., in the rural C 9-basin, a sparsely developed agricultural area west of Hialeah and the Florida Turnpike Extension. It has been the site of several illegal pig slaughterhouses discovered in recent years.
Coto-Martinez was cited in the past by the United States Department of Agriculture for improperly running a small pig slaughter operation on the property. The land is also used as stables for Fairy Tale Pony Rentals, a company that rents horse rides for children’s parties.
The farm is surrounded by rock quarries, where some horse carcasses have been found in recent years.
According to police, a confidential informant introduced Coto-Martinez to an undercover Miami-Dade detective, Jonathan Santana, who posed as a buyer of horse meat.
Santana and another detective, Kristina Lageyre, posed as husband and wife, pretending they had a child suffering from anemia. The reason: in some cultures, iron-rich horse meat is believed to help symptoms of the illness.
According to prosecutors, the informant and the undercover detectives bought 20 pounds of frozen horse meat at Coto-Martinez’s rural ranch in September. A second buy was done in October, according to an arrest warrant by Miami-Dade Detective Marcus Lois and prosecutor Warren Eth.
A third purchase was done — with Coto-Martinez himself handing over the meat — on Nov. 13. “Det. Santana was able to see a large white freezer and saw Coto receive a white plastic bag,” according to an arrest warrant. “Coto walked back to Santana and handed him the frozen bag and meat.”
The USDA, which took part in the investigation, sent the meat to a lab in Georgia to confirm the meat was indeed equine.