Since January 2009, at least 24 horses have been found butchered in South Florida, most of them in or near the C-9 Basin. The horse meat black market has existed for decades, but lately the killers seem to have become more brazen, and reporters have started paying attention.

Credit the latter to tireless self-publicist Couto. He's shown a knack for dramatically hugging an orphaned foal just as an Associated Press photographer shows up, then posting the resulting article on his Facebook page for 1,200 rabid followers to forward along.

His moment of revelation came on July 8, 2008, when he accompanied Miami-Dade cops and a couple of other SPCA volunteers to a farm in the C-9 Basin, just a few miles from the nonprofit's rescue ranch. They were investigating a report of a horse in distress.

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

Couto was stunned to find an unlicensed slaughterhouse in full, filthy operation. Veal cages housing calves bordered expansive hog-slaughter sheds manned by blood-drenched butchers. The animals were fed restaurant leftovers, and their sludge-like drinking water was kept in rusted barrels. Couto dredged one barrel with a stick and dragged dead birds from the bottom, he says: "It was the most vile farm I had ever seen."

The property belongs to Manuel Coto, a Danny Devito-shaped fireplug of a farmer who has become the unwilling poster boy for illegal slaughter. As the farmer stewed behind the investigators, Couto gravitated toward one of several sickly looking horses on the property, a bone-thin brown-and-white gelding with weary but intelligent eyes. The horse was in miserable condition. Its right front leg was badly shattered, and its throat was infested with strangles — a buildup of mucus so massive that its skin had burst in several places. The gelding was "days away from dying," Couto guesses.

Manuel Coto didn't protest as the SPCA volunteers loaded the horse onto a trailer. Couto adopted off the horse and later discovered its elite pedigree: Its name was Freedom's Flight, descendant of Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Secretariat and half-brother to Ice Box, which finished second in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.

Couto was galvanized. He immediately asked to become the region's lead SPCA horse slaughter investigator. "It became his mission," says Jeanette Jordan, president of SPCA's South Florida chapter. "He fell in love with the horse, and he wanted to know how it went from being a valuable racehorse to being on a slaughter farm."

Couto is blunter: "I was completely consumed."


From the beginning, Cuoto says, he was rebuffed by cops who showed no interest in a prolonged investigation into the C-9 Basin. So he made the quest his own. He decided to catalog just how many laws were being broken on each farm in the basin. From the beginning, his commando tactics made his SPCA peers nervous.

His nights began on the outskirts of the basin, where he'd hide his black Range Rover in brush and unload his motocross bike. In full assault gear and with his face blacked out with shoe polish, he'd buzz into the basin, using county property-record printouts as his guide. Like an urban ninja, he'd climb over barbed-wire fences or under gates, ignoring "No Trespassing" signs.

Eventually, he probably marauded through every slaughterhouse in the basin. He tossed tools into swamps and stole logbooks with scribbled sales records and clients' phone numbers. Couto kept files on each property, scrawled with livid notes like "Fucking disgusting!" or "Slaughter! Shut the fuckers down!"

Later, he'd call the landlords of the slaughter properties and similarly document their reactions to his discoveries.

Getting chased away by armed-to-the-teeth guajiros became a common occurrence. Couto claims he's been shot at 20 times but never hit. He himself kept the safety off on his .45-caliber handguns, loaded with "big, fat bullets." If he did have to pop off on an irate farmer, Couto wasn't aiming to wound.

Not surprisingly, cops do not approve of Couto's renegade tactics. In July 2009, he was questioned about his theft of a black-and-white pig from a suspected slaughterhouse. No charges were filed after the farm's owner, Jose Mateen, declined to press charges.

"Fuck it — yeah, I took Oreo," Coto tells New Times of the pig. He explains that it was penned on a slaughterhouse table, where it was "splattered with blood and witnessing killing all day. That's animal torture."

Miami-Dade police spokesman Robert Williams says that his department is "investigating" Couto, adding that his penchant for trespassing is "a crime and incredibly dangerous. If he was to get shot, he would have no recourse."

On November 7, 2009, it became clear just how dangerous C-9's outlaws could be. For about a year, a Cuban-born horse lover had been feeding information about horse-slaughter suspects to both Couto and Miami-Dade police. On that date, Ricardo (not his real name) was driving out of the Krome Avenue stables where he kept his three horses when he was suddenly cut off by a Napoleonic tough guy in a pickup truck.

Alexis Camino, a bulky, 27-year-old convicted drug dealer, jumped from the truck and told Ricardo that "he wanted to talk to him," according to a police report. When Ricardo got out of his car, Camino exploded. "I'm the one who's been killing the horses in the area," he seethed in Spanish to Ricardo, according to a police report, "and I'm going to continue." He punched the lanky Ricardo to the ground and repeatedly landed his cowboy boots to Ricardo's face and ribs. Camino then pulled Ricardo's left pinky until it broke.

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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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