New Focus on Illegal Slaughterhouses

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New Focus on Illegal Slaughterhouses

By Curtis Morgan, Juan Carlos Chavez on Sun-Sentinel.com

"This is going to be a bigger black eye. These illegal slaughter farms have been running for north of 20 to 30 years without anyone doing anything about it,'' said Couto, who left the SPCA to form his own group, Animal Recovery Mission.

For 20 years, Tony Maqueira has routinely trucked pigs down from upstate to sell in rural Northwest Miami-Dade. With demand for a Nochebuena roast pig at its peak last week, he simply parked his squealing load along West Okeechobee Road and waited for customers from nearby small farms to come to him.

Asked if buyers are licensed to kill and sell pigs, Maqueira, an impeccably polite man wearing the straw hat and black rubber boots of a working rancher, appeared momentarily puzzled. Then he shrugged and explained there were worse things to worry about in these unpaved, impoverished outskirts: cockfights, dogfights, guns, drugs.

"This is food,'' he said. "This is good for the people.''

But the small, often-filthy slaughterhouses that have operated for decades in an unincorporated pocket west of Hialeah also are illegal. Most violate an array of business, code, health and environmental regulations. At least a few are suspected as the source of Miami's black market in horse flesh, a thriving illicit trade exposed by a string of grisly horse killings this year.

On Thursday, county code enforcers, state health inspectors and federal food safety investigators hit one of the largest operations in the area, known as the C-9 Basin. Just north of Okeechobee Road and west of the Florida Turnpike, it is zoned for agricultural use and dominated by nurseries, wetlands and an assortment of other ramshackle developments, from trailer parks to small farms, or ranchos.

The agencies issued a long list of violations. They found garbage dumped around the property, an illegal restaurant, butcher tables, a fly infestation in the slaughter area and hog pen, and a freezer packed with meat -- no horse, but whole and sectioned hogs ready for sale.

In Miami-Dade, a variance is required to raise hogs, and while the landowner had applied last year, he had been denied four times, said Charles Danger, director of the county's building and neighborhood compliance department.

"This is not just raising pigs,'' said Danger, "this looks like a slaughterhouse.''

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Danger said, locked down the freezers and the county issued a five-day notice to cut power. "We're going to put them out of service.''

For Richard Couto, a former board member and investigator with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in South Florida, the action was long overdue and, he hopes, the start of a wider crackdown.

For the past year, Couto has pressed county agencies for action, calling the cottage industry an open -- and nasty -- secret behind the horse killings that drew national media attention and have become a black eye for the community. He believes the rampant, unregulated butchering of goats, chickens and pigs for everything from Christmas Eve feasts to Santeria rituals to neighborhood cafe fare is even worse.

"This is going to be a bigger black eye. These illegal slaughter farms have been running for north of 20 to 30 years without anyone doing anything about it,'' said Couto, who left the SPCA to form his own group, Animal Recovery Mission.

No slaughter operation, even those overseen by the USDA, is pleasant. But licenses require humane stunning before slaughter and an array of health and handling standards.

Couto supplied regulators, as well as The Miami Herald and a CNN reporter, with packages of photos he took at several sites. They showed large pools of blood and waste seeping into open ground; entrails stacked on butcher tables; a fly-covered, decapitated baby goat.

Couto stressed that he's a meat eater himself, but he called the conditions in which animals are kept and killed ``nasty, disgusting and filthy.'' Couto said he has witnessed animals being butchered while still in their death throes, ``and that's a real problem for me.''

AGENCY LIMITATIONS

Most of the farms are modest and are owned or operated by immigrants from other countries where slaughtering standards can vary widely. In November, the Miami-Dade Commission passed a resolution condemning the horse slaughters and urging a crackdown, but Couto still suspects there is cultural and political resistance from local officials.

"For us, it's not a cultural limitation,'' said Carlos Espinosa, director of the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resource Management. ``Our work is focused on wetlands and incidental environmental issues. The mere fact of having pigs on your property is not a violation.''

County police, prosecutors and other county agencies echoed that argument. They contend that murky laws dilute authority and make it hard to make cases stick. In Florida, the USDA oversees licensed slaughter houses, but unlicensed ones fall between the regulatory cracks, with multiple agencies having some small slice of jurisdiction.

The USDA does have investigators who will assist local agencies in illegal slaughter investigations, spokesman Caleb Weaver said from Washington. Weaver declined to discuss any current probes.

"All we can say at this time is the USDA is aware of the situation and we are working with state and local authorities,'' he said.

Espinosa and Danger acknowledge that the C-9 Basin is a hot spot for a host of problems -- from cockfighting rings to big, unpermitted gravel lots for semi-trailers -- and they have targeted it in the past with periodic sweeps of animal slaughterhouses.

Between 2001 and 2005, the county reported closing six operations. Police have made a number of arrests since. DERM and code enforcers have issued dozens of citations for wetlands, trash, sanitary nuisance and building code violations since.

"It's very hard to make people comply through the zoning procedure,'' Danger said, and swamped county judges tend to quickly dismiss minor infractions. Hogs can't be raised without a county variance, for instance, but owners cited in the past have paid fines and reopened.

Miami-Dade police have arrested five people in horse killings this year and expect more. But detective Edna Hernandez, a spokeswoman, said investigators aren't pursuing cases in the unlicensed slaughter of other livestock. Only horse meat is illegal to sell commercially.

"We're not participating in these investigations, because we found the most effective way to combat this is with code compliance and animal services,'' she said.

Only two slaughterhouses in the county are licensed to raise and slaughter pigs -- Cabrera's in nearby Hialeah Gardens and Madson Meat in Medley.

Owner John Madson said he believes agencies simply don't have the resources to pursue what are often mom-and-pop operations. He said he's "learned to live with it'' after 35 years.

"Obviously, it affects my businesses,'' he said -- particularly around Christmas Eve, when many families traditionally serve roast pig.

"There is a lot of unwarranted and unwanted competition from people who slaughter under a tree as opposed to all the licensing and rules I've got.''

THE HORSE MARKET

As of Dec. 1, 21 horse carcasses had been discovered this year in vacant fields, most near the C-9 area, and Couto suspects hundreds more have been burned or disposed of undetected. In November, police arrested a ranch owner and a worker at a C-9 ranch after they sold horse meat to an undercover officer.

Danger said there was no evidence the farm hit Thursday slaughtered horses. But Couto, who rescued a sickly thoroughbred from the same property last year, called police in to confiscate two sickly horses he found in a stall and field.

Marilyn Coto, whose husband, Manuel, runs the farm that agencies raided Thursday, declined to comment as county and federal inspectors handed her citations, and again in a phone call Friday.

Many farm operators in the C-9 openly advertise their offerings. Homemade signs are posted on fences and corners. The one out front of Pedro's Rancho reads "Se Vende Todo Tipo de Animales.'' We sell all types of animals.

When asked about butchering, however, owner Pedro Rodriguez gave an answer commonly repeated to reporters touring the areas: He knew of others who did "bad things,'' but he only sold his animals live.