The C-9 Basin Serves as a Last Bastion of Lawless South Florida

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 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 severed 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 man behind the camera says. "But we're gonna find out." He flips the bag over. Mushy purple and gray entrails spill on 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 that straddles the western edge of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Although the basin lies just 12 miles from Hialeah, it resembles the backdrop for a Latin American version of Apocalypse Now.

Luis Delgado on the raids on his outlaw land: "You would have thought they had found the Taliban."
Photo by C. Stiles
Luis Delgado on the raids on his outlaw land: "You would have thought they had found the Taliban."
Richard Cuoto
Photo by Ian Witlen
Richard Cuoto

To get there, you travel west of Florida's Turnpike and pull off the safely paved confines of six-lane Okeechobee Road onto two-lane streets. Gravel roads turn into dirt ones with deep potholes. This is terrain best traveled on horseback, in mule-driven buggies, or in Mack trucks. Locals greet all visitors with suspicious glares.

Just about everything out 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 into their terrain 18 months ago, determined to bring an end to the lawlessness.

This winter, Cuoto 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.

Miami-Dade 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 at dozens of ranches. Miami-Dade's environmental resources department issued another 100-plus violations for illegal dumping and operating illegal slaughterhouses. In addition, officials broke up 17 cockfighting rings, shut down six ranches for operating as illegal restaurants, gave five ranchers notices to appear in court for criminal misdemeanors, arrested two people, and ordered six others to appear in court on charges of animal cruelty.

Couto's vigilante activism has made him an enemy to both outlaws and the law. He's 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," Cuoto says. "I did what had to be done."


An aqua Ford F-150 slowly bounces over the narrow pockmarked limestone road leading into Luis Delgado's five-acre lot. Feral dogs and puppies, coats caked with ashy-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 truck, 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 onto his mud-stained blue jeans.

The 78-year-old retired trucker, who purchased his land for $70,000 in 1985, says he excavated a one-acre lake and cleared the remaining acres for his pigs and goats. Delgado leases some of the land to Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants who raise roosters inside tin-roofed wooden 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 home trailer, 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.

Delgado and his neighbors — many of them Cuban rancheros – began migrating into the basin in the early 1980s. Out here, land is cheap and plentiful, and with little government oversight, the basin's inhabitants could erect shacks, stables, and livestock pens. They could also operate in a black market, where the bartering of common items such as eggs and milk, as well as trading animals, is part of life.

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7 comments
lindajaniebroussard
lindajaniebroussard

The writer describes ARM's supporters as "rabid."  Why?  Sounds like a small part of the writer thinks that there's something wrong with putting a stop to the horrors perpetuated by the criminals in the C9 area.  It's complete hogwash to imply that the so-called 'rights' of these landowners are being trampled upon.  These men represent worst sort of immigrants... send them home if they don't like American laws.

Kozzie69
Kozzie69

Go in there with the fricken army and cull them out. This is a disgusting thing they do with animals. Let them go back to their native land and butcher pets....we JUST DON'T DO IT HERE!!!!!

Olaf
Olaf

They are in Clewiston!!!

Lorinda Bloch
Lorinda Bloch

Agreed, Mr. Cuoto is just what this country needs--what Florida needs. And I hope more brave souls come forth and do what he is doing and has done. Every animal lover--especially horse owners--should be praising his name to the Highest Power. I say, "Thank you, Richard Cuoto." And thanks to the authors of this article and to New Times for reporting it.KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!! May the dreadful people who commit these unlawful inhumane acts get a taste of the very fates they have inflicted on these poor animals. It's going to be a nasty ride in Hell for them. And Hell is a very very long sentence.

Debbie
Debbie

Mr. Couto is a hero. His father should be super proud of him!!!! How to get in touch with him to give our support? These illegal acts have finally been put to a stop. We don't want cock-fighting, illegal slaughters, illegal dumping! Great article, Mr. Alvarado and Mr. Garcia-Roberts. We need people in this country and world like the three of you -- willing to combat crap, and willing to write about it. PETA should give an award to Mr. Couto! As should Miami-Dade and the State of Florida! I had no idea about all the illegal activities going on at the C-9 basin until this article.

Christy
Christy

I will be eternally grateful to Kudo for what he has done. The illegal slaughter industry down here is abominable, disgusting and gives Miami a bad name. When they started pulling meat off horses while they were still alive...right in their stalls or tied to trees... GAME OVER. This will end. Come near my horse...you won't like what you find.

Kozzie69
Kozzie69

 People need to put baby monitors in their barns and be ready with a gun to blow anyone away who messes with their property, which livestock is considered.

 
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