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.

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.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.
Gus Garcia-Roberts