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CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

White Line Fever

I. PROLOGUE

Miami is one of those cities with its own peculiar odor and you smell it most distinctly during the hours before dawn. There is salt in the air, of course, a nod to the abiding presence of the southern sea. But on certain nights when a desultory breeze blows east from the Everglades, a more powerful essence soaks the dark air: the ancient memory of the swamp. It’s as if all the tar and concrete, all the gleaming hotels and banks and shopping centers, the tract houses, schools, churches, and restaurants are some dull afterthought. In those humid after-midnight hours, the modern city is overwhelmed by a primeval compost of decaying vegetation, rioting flowers, fetid water, the remains of beings that die with thrashing suddenness in the night.

And on almost all such nights, it does not take much imagination to detect something else drifting on the Miami wind: the sweet rotting stench of corruption.

No other American city has melded its natural odor so perfectly with the dailiness of its human activities. If you move around the city, you sense the pervasiveness of the corruption: the cop smoking a cigarette in a doorway, like a supporting player from Red Harvest; the chaotic sprawl of weather-stained commercial architecture, evoking deals and variances and the purchased approval of second-rate materials; young men driving Porsches and Mercedes and Caddies as if they owned the nightside streets. Corruption is most tangible, as blunt as an ax, in the bars, discos, marinas, that sleek urban scape so accurately reflected in Miami Vice. This world is not fiction; its treacherous glamour is an undeniable element of modern Miami. And the citizens of that world, adorned with Naugahyde-like tans and encrusted Rolexes, rubbing their eroding noses in unwilled salute, are walking symbols of the city’s deepest reality. The truth of a time and place is, of course, always illusive; but no historian can tell the story of Miami in the last decade without acknowledging one gigantic fact of municipal life: cocaine.

In the late 1970s, the Miami Herald estimated that drugs had become the largest single industry in southern Florida, accounting for a billion dollars a year. Today, in spite of numerous photo opportunities starring George Bush, increases in various antidrug budgets, and some hard dangerous work by the more than 800 state and federal antidrug agents, there is no reason to believe that anything much has changed. Drugs are to Miami what cars are to Detroit. As opium was for some Brits in the 19th century, cocaine has been the essential building block of great Miami fortunes. Narcobucks have erected shopping centers, financed housing developments, built vast mansions, stocked racing stables, paid for boats, cars, and more fleshy trinkets, created and maintained banks (some law enforcement people believe that there isn’t a clean bank in the state), and so worked their way into the fabric of life here that nobody will ever be likely to separate the clean money from the soiled.

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In almost every way, cocaine dominates the culture of Miami. It is part of the city’s power structure, the engine of its economy, the unacknowledged grease of its politics. In Miami, as Christine Evans of the Miami Herald has written, “drugs are cheaper, purer and more abundant than anywhere else in the country. Doctors use them. Lawyers use them. Data analysts use them. Rich kids get them from their parents’ secret drawers. Poor kids score cheap on the street.”

One recent study estimates that the citizens of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties spend $1.69 billion a year on illegal drugs. Employers spend $744 million a year on health care for their druggies or for repairing the messes made by people who go to work loaded. Cocaine — 75 per cent of which enters this country through Florida — is at the heart of a vast capitalist enterprise, a rude democratic industry that follows the most primitive laws of supply and demand while promising great rewards to those willing to take risks. The odds are almost all in favor of the outlaw. Since its inception in 1982, the federal South Florida Crime Task Force has racked up more than 9500 arrests, seized tons of drugs. The result? Drugs are more available than ever before and cheaper by half at $30,000 a kilo. Few street-level dealers are ever touched because the courts and jails are jammed; crack houses operate openly almost everywhere. And the big dealers — the importers and wholesalers — are virtually immune in their Brickell Avenue condos and Coral Gables mansions. The drug business is a very successful American enterprise. Everybody knows this: ordinary citizens, reporters, politicians, schoolchildren.

But the cops know it better than anyone else. And in this world of dirty money and deep cynicism, it is no surprise that some of them have eaten the forbidden fruit. These notes are about some of those cops.

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II. DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

The Miami River meanders out of the interior, sluggish and dense and hidden from view, crawling to the sea for 5.5 miles under the city’s bridges like a huge, flat worm. It passes through a wilderness of boat yards, docks, skiffs, houseboats; it eases past areas full of twisted, anonymous steel, past rusting gas pumps and sun-blasted soda machines, past tiny stores selling shrimp and cigarettes and cold beer, past bars where tattooed whores arrive before noon to service the fishermen. Miami is never thought of as a river town, but its river serves admirably as municipal metaphor: dirty, furtive, lawless.

Sometime after midnight on the river last July 28, six men were unloading 300 to 400 kilograms of cocaine from a beat-up old 40-foot scow called the Mary C. This was in itself not unusual; the river is sparsely patrolled by police, whose jurisdiction is split between Miami and the larger Metro-Dade police forces, along with 30 other agencies charged with its regulation (Dade County alone has a bewildering 27 separate police departments totaling 4500 police), and the river is frequently used by smugglers of everything from drugs to Pakistanis. The six men worked quickly, moving their precious cargo from boat to waiting van. It seemed like another smooth night’s work in Miami.

Then, at the entrance to the boat yard, an unarmed night watchman named Bob Downs was suddenly brought to attention by an urgent banging on his door. He was told to open up. He did, and saw at least six men, two of whom were wearing police uniforms and caps. They said they were police and that this was a raid. Downs let them in.

The new arrivals hurried into the yard with guns drawn. Someone among them yelled, “Kill them!” Panicked, cornered, afraid, the men who were unloading the drugs dove into the filthy river. Downs then was ordered to unlock the padlock on the cyclone fence gates, which he did, and the loaded van was driven away. Three of the men who leaped into the river — Pedro Martinez (described later as one of Dade County’s biggest coke dealers, with a fleet of five steel-hulled boats operating from the Bahamas to Florida), Adolfo Lopez-Yanes, and Juan Garcia — never were seen again alive. Their drowned bodies were fished out of the river the next afternoon.

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The following December, arrests were finally made: Armando Estrada, Roman Rodriguez, Osvaldo Coello, Arturo de la Vega, Ro­dolfo Arias, and Armando Garcia. All were young. All were Latin. All were, or had been, Miami cops.

Estrada, Rodriguez, and Garcia were arrested at dawn, each charged with three counts of first-degree murder; under Florida’s felony murder law, anyone who kills another in the process of committing a felony can be charged with first-degree murder. The others were picked up later. In addition to the murder charges, all five were charged with cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and aggravated battery; individual charges included armed robbery, conspiracy and solicitation to commit a felony, and possession of marijuana. Two of the surviving civilians who were unloading the boat were also arrested and charged. But the cops got all the attention. When four of them were brought to court, the whole country saw them blowing kisses, giggling, rolling their eyes, sniggering at their pictures in the newspapers. They flexed their muscles as they moved, looking like bags of bowling balls held together with steroids.

Within days, details about these men began to emerge. All were weight lifters, all made the disco scene, both in Little Havana and in the anglo joints out at the beach. They liked to adorn themselves with gold chains, spend money on expensive clothes, women, flashy cars, all the props of Miami Vice. And in police jobs paying $10 to $14 an hour, they apparently supported this lifestyle in the only way possible: through crime. They started small, taking drugs from motorists stopped for traffic offenses, and keeping them. A few openly muscled small-time peddlers. And eventually, investigators believe, about 10 cops bonded themselves together into a group the prosecutors call “The Enterprise.”

The major target of The Enterprise was the drug dealer. As cops, they would learn on the street (or from straight cops) who was dealing, when big buys were taking place, and then they would go in with shields and guns and take the goods for themselves. Some simply invaded the homes of suspected dealers at gunpoint, a variation of the old crap game stickup. Obviously, if you’re not supposed to be doing something, it is very hard to call the cops when you’re robbed. It’s even harder if the cops are doing the robbing.

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When they weren’t robbing drug dealers, the rogue cops were working for them. The key man was a short dapper 42-year-old Ma­riel refugee named Luis Rodriguez, who had gone from two 1982 arrests for possession of burglary tools and firearms, and four arrests in two years for possession of narcotics (for which he did no time) to the obligatory Mercedes, beeper, and cabin cruiser of the successful drug dealer. Like many drug dealers, he moved around a lot, seldom staying at his Coral Gables apartment, spending nights in various hotels, traveling on occasion to New York.

But Rodriguez was not exactly a master criminal, some Cuban wedding of Professor Moriarty and Meyer Lansky. In fact, he was pretty damned dumb. An example: on March 1, 1984, while driving south on the Jersey Turnpike, Rodriguez and another man were stopped by a trooper for driving 70 miles an hour. The trooper searched the 1981 Chevy and found two bags of cocaine, $14,000 in cash in the trunk, $5000 in the glove compartment, and $44,000 under the dashboard. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to cocaine possession then changed his mind, decided to fight the case, and went back to Miami to wait for trial. He obviously preferred the warm embrace of the Miami legal system to the chill vastness of the North. After his last period of probation in Florida, for example, Rodriguez asked the judge to give him back his 9 mm. Browning. I mean, what is a drug dealer without his piece? And Miami being Miami, Circuit Judge Ted Mastos agreed.

Rodriguez ran a joint called the Molino Rojo Bar, on 3084 NW 7th Street, where drug deals were often made (according to court documents) and where Rodriguez himself was once nabbed with two bags of cocaine. The bar was usually packed (even a brutal double homicide one night in December 1984 didn’t keep the customers away) and among those who came around were the young cops.

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Luis Rodriguez had a 49-year-old assistant, a hustler off SW 8th Street known as Armando Un. In the bar, Un got to know the cops and apparently he was a good judge of character; in 1984 he suggested they work for Rodriguez. And they were willing. In an affidavit, Un said that the drug thefts began in September 1984, the period cited by prosecutors as the beginning of The Enterprise. Soon the young weight lifters were moving drugs around the city for Rodriguez, often in patrol cars, sometimes peddling on duty. They didn’t always work in combination. Officer Estrada, Un said, once gave him a kilo of cocaine in mid-1985 and took a $2000 down payment; that sounded like a private deal. Some other jobs were small; The Enterprise even helped collect gambling debts, the public servant functioning as private muscle. But according to Un, in mid-1985 be helped plan a successful 300-to-400 kilo ripoff at the Tamiami Marina, with six cops doing the heavy lifting. And then they started going after even bigger deals. In the anarchic world of Miami drugs, business was good, although Metro-Dade homicide detective Alex Alvarez later told reporters that business wasn’t always very smooth; there were, for example, too many men involved — at least 10 — and they began to squabble. Said Alvarez: “Everyone wanted to kill everyone else.”

Immediately after the Miami River arrests, there were expressions of surprise and rage. But the Miami establishment should have known. The police brass. The politicians. The prosecutors. They should have smelled the rotting odor, drifting in the Miami night. Way back in February 1985, a banker whose own activities were under investigation said that three masked men broke into his Coral Gables home, robbed him of $100,000 in cash and jewelry, and threatened him with death. The thieves were “built like body builders,” and that April, after his own investigation, he told the cops that one of the three was a Miami police officer who worked out in a gymnasium near Bird Road. Coello and Garcia owned a gym on Bird Road. The cops investigated but did nothing. They were busy elsewhere.

On July 9 last year, a group of men invaded the home of a Miami weapons manufacturer, shot him to death, stole jewelry and a safe; neighbors said men who looked like “off-duty cops” had been seen casing the home. On the day of the Miami River deaths three men in a blue Cadillac flashed a police badge, kidnapped a woman, took her to her home and robbed her husband of $50,000; a car matching the description of the Cadillac was stopped two weeks later. Officer Osvaldo Coello was driving. He had borrowed the car, he said. Nothing happened. On August 17, two days after he resigned from the police department (after an investigation into allegations that he was using cocaine), Coello was stopped doing 120 miles an hour in a $59,000 red Lotus. He was carrying $4500. As a cop, he earned $10.40 an hour. He was not locked up. The police brass saw no evil. On August 26, two cops were arrested while trying to sell police badges, radio scanners, and automatic weapons to a drug dealer. On October 7, Miami police admitted that $150,000 had been stolen from a safe in the office of the Special Investigations Unit (the real name for the Miami vice squad) right in police headquarters. On October 10, a Metro-Dade officer was arrested for being part of a home-invasion gang; he specialized in posing as a mailman. A week later, two cops were arrested for possession of cocaine. The following month, two former Miami cops were charged with stealing (while still on the force) 150 pounds of cocaine from a 1000-pound seizure also made on the Miami River. In February, a cop was arrested while driving a stolen $40,000 Porsche. The next month, a cop was arrested for using a police car in the ripoff of a drug dealer and then planning the man’s murder. The cops in the Miami area were rapidly acquiring a substantial collective yellow sheet of their own.

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The most obvious questions were asked first: Who are these people? What kind of cops are they? The answers were sketchy.

All became cops in the aftermath of the bloody 1980 riots, when the Miami force was expanded from 630 officers to 1050 over three years. To reflect the changed ethnic composition of the city (42.3 per cent of Dade County’s 1,771,000 inhabitants are now Latin) about 80 per cent of the new officers were black or Latin. Some veteran cops insist that to attract the new officers, standards were lowered. And one result was that some bad apples ended up with badges and legitimate guns. Former Police Chief Kenneth Harms says, “Instead of taking the cream off the top of the barrel, we took the whole damn barrel.”

There are some indications that the contents of that barrel were drawn from a Miami generation to whom money was holy, its acquisition sacramental. This is, of course, in the grand American tradition. These, after all, are the children of immigrants, the same kind of people who — in the old days in a dozen American cities — made up the soldiers of the police and the Mob. Many came from the same neighborhoods. Two members of The Enterprise went to Miami High together. Three were in the class of ’81 at the Police Academy; all were known as “aggressive” cops, muscular machos who volunteered for tough assignments, actually preferring the high-action midnight shift. They also moved around with a certain swagger, letting everyone know they were hard guys — as hard as anyone else on the street. They worked at this, wearing muscles as if they too were a kind of uniform. Bodymasters, the gym owned by Coello and Garcia, attracted a lot of police officers; investigators now believe that while pumping iron at Bodymasters, members of The Enterprise also planned some of the drug ripoffs. But it’s not clear when these young men went bad.

Some Miami cops told me they believed the baddies became cops in order to enrich themselves, knowing that access to police intelligence and the gossip of informers would help them locate potential victims. Since the victims were also criminals there were few ethical problems. There might never have been ethical problems.

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“Look, there have always been bad cops,” one cop told me. “They’re usually cops for years and all they see is the scum of the earth and a court system that doesn’t give a rat’s ass and after a while they might say, ‘Hey, why don’t I get a piece for myself?’ In Miami, a cop can make a few grand by looking to the left instead of the right. But these young guys weren’t cops long enough to have that happen. I think they were bad from the day they went to the academy.”

If Rodriguez (through Un) was the corrupter, the relationship with the young cops didn’t last very long. At 5:30 p.m. on July 30, 1985, the day after the murders on the Miami River, in a field about a mile from the Dolphin Expressway, someone dumped a pine box that was three feet high and three feet wide. Inside the box was the body of Luis Rodriguez. He had been shot quite a few times. When the cops found the crate and opened the lid, Luis’s body popped out, and for a brief time his death was happily known to cops and reporters as the “Jack in the Box” murder.

Investigating the murder of Rodriguez, the cops heard that Officer Estrada had been around the night before the drug dealer disappeared, saying he would have to kill him. In a taped conversation after the killing, Un said to Officer Estrada: “I could care less if they killed Luis 40 times over. He had to be killed. If they had not killed him … ” On the tape, Estrada finished the sentence for him: “We would have killed him.”

Officers Arias, Garcia, and Estrada have been charged with conspiracy to murder Rodriguez, but nobody has yet been charged with the actual murder. The larger story of the Miami River murders (or, as defense attorneys call them, “suicides by drowning”) seems to have eclipsed the death of Luis Rodriguez.

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III. RUNNING AT HIALEAH

At some point, crime and politics always seem to intersect. This can be seen most clearly in the town of Hialeah. A stranger could cross from Miami into Hialeah without knowing that he has crossed any boundary; it’s like traversing the frontier between Brooklyn and Queens. But to those who know the place, Hialeah has its own special character these days. It is the second largest city in Dade County, with 180,000 residents (more than Fort Lauderdale). The city’s centerpiece is the once-lovely, now rather shabby racetrack that bears its name. In the old days, famous hoodlums came each winter to the track, carting along their fancy women, each northern don protected by a flying wedge of pistoleros.

In those days, there were almost no Latins in the town; those Latins who did live in Hialeah were third-rate jockeys, exercise boys, vendors, and petty hustlers who made a living off the track. Hialeah in the ’50s was a redneck town, full of hard-drinking shit-kickers who loved to batter each other on a Saturday night while Webb Pierce or Lefty Frizzell sang counterpoint on the jukebox. Then, after Castro took power, at first gradually and soon in a great rush, Hialeah began to change; vowels replaced consonants; Joe Cuba and the La Playa Sextet shoved Hank Williams and Merle Haggard off the juke. Today, Latins make up 80 per cent of the population and in 1983 finally took control of the city council. They have come to dominate an ugly, sprawling town, predominantly working class, whose main artery is 49th Street with its fast food joints and used car lots and grungy shopping centers. They have also inherited a ripe tradition of corruption.

“Politicians steal,” a Miami cop said to me. “That’s their business. But in Hialeah, they think they’re supposed to steal everything.”

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For years, the press and the prosecutors were after a Hialeah mayor named Henry Milander, citing various cases of alleged malfeasance. Milander brushed them away as if they were visiting fruit flies, until at last in 1970 he was convicted of grand larceny. Even that didn’t change Hialeah very much. The following year he was again elected mayor. Other pols, a visitor is told, made fortunes on developing the town, ridding the land of farms and open spaces, planting fields with warehouses and factories, jerry-building housing so unrelentingly ugly that it might even have offended Joe Stalin.

Into this fast-buck heaven have arrived many of the new-breed hustlers, and among them was a man named Alberto San Pedro. Born in Havana in 1950, Alberto was four years old when his parents brought him to Miami. In recent years, he called himself a developer, and hosted extravagant parties each December 17 in honor of his favorite saint, the wonderful San Lazarus, who is not recognized by the Catholic Church anymore but remains big among Cubans. The last two of these $50,000 parties were held at the posh Doral Hotel in Miami Beach, and among the guests were Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, Representative Claude Pepper, Miami Beach mayor Alex Daoud, WSVN-Channel 7 weekend anchor and reporter Rick Sanchez, Miami police major Jack Sullivan, ordinary cops, political fundraisers, lawyers, various right-wing bravos, and a load of judges. San Pedro brought along a nine-foot statue of the saint, dressed himself in a tuxedo, was flanked by bodyguards, and posed with the assembled celebrities.

San Pedro’s father was a delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention, and Alberto San Pedro was cleared for an audience with Ronald Reagan in Tampa in 1985. The son told all inquisitors that in addition to his activities as a developer, he was also a bookkeeper and salesman for his father’s business, the San Lazaro Racing Stables at Calder Race Track. These occupations obviously rewarded him handsomely: according to Jeff Leen of the Miami Herald, Alberto San Pedro’s six-bedroom mansion in Hialeah has eight and a half bathrooms and bulletproof windows.

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The windows should have been the tipoff that there was more to Alberto San Pedro than his own resume might indicate. He was, in fact, leading a far more interesting life than the one he presented to the public and seems to have studied for it with the same respect for basic texts that a seminarian would reserve for Thomas a Kempis. Leen, whose wonderfully detailed profile of Alberto for the Herald is the basis of many of these notes, also learned that Alberto kept a hardcover copy of The Godfather in the bathroom closest to his bedroom and a biography of Al Capone behind the desk in his office. It was in that same office that police set up a hidden microphone and learned many things about Alberto’s other, perhaps more characteristic, life. As we learned from listening to the Watergate tapes, the bulk of a hoodlum’s day is consumed by bullshitting with other hoodlums, and the San Pedro tapes — recorded in thousands of pages of transcripts — are a fascinating journey into the true underbelly of life in a corrupt town.

For these tapes, the police say, show that Alberto San Pedro was a major corrupter, a fixer, the classic cacique who works behind the scenes to secure power and wealth and enforces his presumed right to both with fear and violence. Among the institutions he is accused of corrupting is the Hialeah police department. It was a task he had trained for all of his life.

We don’t know if Alberto San Pedro’s reading of Mario Puzo moved him to see his life as a novel, but if so, the early  chapters followed the traditional pattern. In junior high school he learned that force can be rewarded. According to a Florida Parole and Probation Commission case analysis quoted by Leen, “Subject began extortion in the 9th and 10th grades, making the other students do his homework or work projects.”

By age 20, San Pedro, like so many other characters in this squalid story, was into weight lifting. And he began to take karate lessons from a Hialeah cop named Leo Thalassites. On the tapes, San Pedro says that he spent much of his youth beating up people for 50 or a hundred bucks (“that’s how I made my money”). By the time he was 21, his yellow sheet was lengthening: three arrests for aggravated assault, one for resisting a police officer, two for assault and battery, another for buying and possessing stolen property. In 1970, police reports said, after being flattened by a hard block in a sandlot football game, an enraged San Pedro stabbed the blocker, then went to his car, took out a machine gun, and sprayed the field. In all of these cases, he was either acquitted or had the charges dismissed. He wasn’t properly nailed by the law until 1971, when he took part in a drug rip-off and discovered that the subjects of his attention were undercover cops. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and given three years probation.

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

Even this didn’t convince San Pedro to go into a quieter line of work. In 1972, he was in trouble again, charged with armed robbery and assault with the intent to commit murder. His victim this time was a hooker’s John. There are clearly marked roads to heaven. But the customer wouldn’t testify and San Pedro got off. Three years later, he almost got off the earth when a hit man shot him five times. San Pedro survived. The hit man disappeared. And San Pedro began to give his annual thanks to Saint Lazarus. He also began to think more about the style of his life and the reach of his ambitions. On a July 26, 1985, tape, he says:

“I’m not a doper. I dedicate myself to my business. I was fucking broke when I was a kid and I got the shit beat out of me by the cops and by … the whole group. That’s what made me think there’s only one way to get around in life here. That’s politics and money.”

San Pedro was correct; the grand old American combination of politics and money is certainly not unique to south Florida. But there was something else going on in Hialeah. By last year, the police chief was a man named Cecil (“Whitey”) Seay, whose earlier career didn’t seem to shape him for extraordinary moral leadership. In 1970 he was accused by a drug dealer of trying to cut himself into a $150,000 marijuana smuggling plot (no charges were filed); he was indicted in 1971 after a Dade County grand jury investigation demanded by 70 Hialeah officers who said that nine officers, including Seay, didn’t meet ethical standards (he was accused of thwarting a burglary investigation, but when the chief witness against him changed his story the charges were dropped); in 1973, a teenage girl appeared before the city’s personnel board and claimed that Seay had forced his attentions upon her (no investigation was made). At the hearings that led to his choice as chief, Seay said: “Those guys who have a clean record have never done anything.”

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One of Seay’s most important officers was San Pedro’s old karate instructor and still his good friend, Leo Thalassites. He was now a sergeant. Leo suddenly found himself in the newspapers on January 30 when he threatened to kill two detectives named Eddie Preston and Tom Nevins. He made this threat in the lobby of the Hialeah City Hall in front of three other officers. Preston and Nevins were in the intelligence section of Hialeah’s police department, and Thalassites accused them of sending anonymous letters to various police organizations and the media accusing Leo and some other Hialeah veterans of corruption. Although the two cops denied this, Chief Seay and Mayor Martinez backed Thalassites. One fine morning, the two detectives found the locks on their office changed, with their personal possessions and pending cases still inside. They were then shifted to other jobs, one washing police cars, the other pounding a beat. Hialeah’s intelligence section was disbanded.

But the story didn’t end there.

The Metro-Dade police were already looking hard at Alberto San Pedro. An undercover agent, posing as a corrupt cop, had ingratiated himself with San Pedro and had a series of meetings and telephone conversations with the man. All were recorded. More than anything else, San Pedro told detective Nelson Perry, he wanted to get rid of the rest of the records of his youth so that he could obtain a full pardon for his youthful crimes and become a U.S. citizen. He planned to do this, he said, with money.

“Everybody’s got a friend and everybody needs friends,” he said on an August 30, 1985, tape. “Everybody likes to be loved and everybody wants to be loved. Money, everybody loves money. Everybody likes to spend it … And unfortunately, politicians are the worst motherfuckers in the world … They only look at one thing, how much can I steal as long as I’m there.”

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Among the records that San Pedro wanted destroyed were accounts of his dealing with a middle-level Gambino family hoodlum named Joseph Paterno. Police recorded conversations in April 1985 indicating that Paterno tried to buy from San Pedro two silencer-­equipped guns for use in the killing of two of his own cousins in New Jersey. San Pedro didn’t refuse; his price — $4000 for each piece — was simply too high for Paterno’s budget, according to Arthur Nehrbass, commander of Dade’s Organized Crime Bureau. Almost immediately after this conversation, Paterno was arrested.

The cops took a closer look at San Pedro. In June, he offered $5000 to a police informant to get the Paterno transcripts and tapes. The cops then sent their undercover man to San Pedro (setting up the meeting through San Pedro’s bodyguard) and listened to his various offers, and accepted sums ranging from $2000 to $11,000. Over a period of time, the cops fed San Pedro a combination of real and fictitious police material, and listened to his bragging, his philosophy, and his schemes. Those schemes were not empty; San Pedro was the real thing. They knew, for example, from the Hialeah records chief, Lieutenant Thomas Bardon, that San Pedro’s file had disappeared three times from that city’s police department. A narcotics intelligence file on San Pedro also disappeared. And his records were missing from the Dade Circuit Court clerk’s office and the State Attorney’s office. San Pedro was clearly attempting to create a new personal history through elimination.

Nelson Perry, who was president of the Police Benevolent Association (which began representing Hialeah cops in September 1985), says he started smelling the rot in Hialeah when he was approached by a 350-pound political press agent and community newspaperman named Don Dugan (later indicted in a separate case for being the bagman in a bribery case in Opa Locka). Dugan told Perry that he could earn “a personal profit” if he stayed out of Hialeah police affairs. This shocked Perry, who told his superiors of this; they assigned him to pose as a corrupt cop. He soon met San Pedro for the first time at the Treetop Restaurant in the Miami Springs Holiday Inn. They continued to meet for weeks. At two of Perry’s meetings with San Pedro, a Hialeah cop was also present. It was Sergeant Thalassites.

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When police overheard San Pedro in February talking about killing two men who owed him a total of $4000, and conspiring to sell a kilo of cocaine, they decided to move. On February 13, San Pedro was arrested on bribery charges, and rearrested March 2 for murder, conspiracy, and cocaine trafficking. Hialeah erupted. Within weeks, Chief Seay resigned. Thalassites went on paid leave. Some of the tapes were released, littered with the names of various politicians who were claimed by San Pedro as friends or property. TV reporter Rick Sanchez was heard discussing an exchange of favors with San Pedro; good old Alberto had found a job in Panama for Sanchez’s uncle; Sanchez, who served as a non-voting adviser to the board of the First American Bank & Trust, got a share of San Pedro’s business for the bank. (What a reporter was doing serving on the board of a bank — and sucking after customers on behalf of that bank — nobody could answer; Sanchez also was granted a paid leave but his superiors at the TV station said they saw nothing wrong with his connection to the bank. The ethics of Miami strike again.) It was then remembered that Sanchez had emceed the 1984 San Lazarus party and had led the group in prayer. Someone else noticed that Hialeah had a 29.6 per cent increase in crime during 1985 and the joke was that this was “not including cops.”

Then in mid-March, the Herald tossed a few more bombs into the discussion.

Reporters Leen and Sydney P. Freedberg discovered that in 1979, Florida’s former attorney general, Robert Shevin, and the state’s esteemed Congressman Claude Pepper had written letters to the Florida parole board extolling San Pedro’s character. They now claimed that they didn’t really know San Pedro, couldn’t remember him; since their letters claimed that they did in fact know San Pedro either the letters or the statements were lies. The former attorney general certainly should have known something about San Pedro. His law partner, a Democratic fund-raiser and adviser to Governor Bob Graham named Ronald Book, represented San Pedro during his 1983 application for a full pardon. Pepper and Shevin spluttered, suffered from amnesia, hung up the phones.

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Even more bizarre was the story of San Pedro’s access to Governor Graham himself. Last December, when there were cops all over Hialeah investigating San Pedro, a woman named Marcia Ludwig emerged to support San Pedro’s application for a full pardon. Marcia Ludwig was once Marcia Valibus and in 1957 she was queen of the Orange Bowl; in Miami there is always an element of the surreal. Later Marcia Valibus was a runner-up in the Miss Universe contest and had a screen test at Paramount Studios. She was also a classmate of Adele Graham, the governor’s wife, and over the years they had remained friends. For more than a decade, the Herald said, Marcia Ludwig has been an intimate friend of one Robert (Bobby) Erra, son of the late Pasquale (Patsy) Erra, who once worked for Vito Genovese. Marcia and Erra are often seen together, friends told the Herald, at the La Goree Country Club. More important, there are pages of conversations between Erra and San Pedro on the various tapes. On December 11, Ludwig sent a hand-written note to her friend, the governor’s wife:

“Dear Adele, This is a note for Bob’s mirror. A good friend of mine — Alberto San Pedro— has a case coming before Bob and his Cabinet on Dec. 18 … I appreciate you calling my words to Bob’s attention.”

On December 19, Adele wrote back to Marcia: “I placed the note on Bob’s mirror — so he’s aware.” This was the day after Graham presided over the hearing. During that session, he said: “Unfortunately, there continues to be this lingering question as to what might be in his background. I’m concerned that Mister San Pedro is sort of being cast under a shadow that he seems to be unable to extricate himself from and which shadow hasn’t yet, or after four or five years, moved to the substance of some action. It has been a long time since the criminal offense for which he’s requesting pardon was committed and he has an impressive statement of his community record.” Graham “reluctantly” moved to continue the case, stating that the next time San Pedro’s pardon was discussed, he would come to a decision. There is no indication that he checked with any of the cops; he certainly didn’t give San Pedro a flat rejection. What the hell: when you’re a kid in Hialeah it’s only natural to fool around with machine guns. Still, Graham didn’t say yes either. And his need to decide was made academic by San Pedro’s February 13 arrest.

The honest cops in Hialeah had long despised San Pedro and to some extent feared him. He was the shadowy man, the fixer, called upon for help by arsonist, hoodlum, dealer. On the day he was arrested, someone placed a note on the police department’s bulletin board. It said very simply: “The untouchable has been touched.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”719763″ /]

IV. OUT OF THE SWAMP

Obviously, every cop in southern Florida is not a crook. Most of the arrests have been made as a result of good tough police investigations along with continuing pressure from the Miami Herald. But it’s unlikely that corruption will soon vanish, the drug dealers joining the dinosaurs in the rot of the swamp. They won’t go away, and cops will continue to be corrupted because there is simply too much dirty money lying around. Cocaine will not soon be legalized: Americans won’t soon surrender their national lust for some form of chemical nirvana.

But if you wonder what happens to some of these men who briefly and luridly occupy page-one headlines, consider recent events in North Bay Village, another suburb of Miami. In 1971, a cop named George Staphylaris was fired from the Miami force for allegedly encouraging a police informant to rob a department store. He appealed the firing, was reinstated with a six-month suspension, then resigned. Six years ago he joined the North Bay Village force. He was soon known to many kids as Officer George, ran the drug education program at Treasure Island Elementary School, often took kids on trips to the Everglades, and had prepared a children’s seminar called “Just Say No To Drugs.”

On the North Bay force, he met another former Miami cop named William David Risk. He too was once fired, for battering a prisoner with a nightstick. He too fought his firing, was reinstated, and resigned in 1979. Last year, he was North Bay Village’s officer of the year, cited for his “superlative performance and dedication.” He was also a weight lifter.

[related_posts post_id_1=”190873″ /]

A third former Miami cop was on the North Bay force. This was Sergeant Fernando Gandon. He quit the Miami force in 1977 after being charged with aggravated battery. While interrogating a man on the street, the charges against him said, he shoved his pistol in the man’s mouth, rattled it around and broke some teeth. Five years ago, he arrived at North Bay and was again given a badge and gun.

On February 27, all three men were arrested by the FBI for selling protection to men they believed to be drug dealers. A Mob guy named Stephen Nahay told FBI agents (posing as drug dealers) in a recorded conversation that if they were moving drugs they should see the three North Bay cops. “They’ll help you out,” Nahay said. “In other words, if you want to kill a guy there … you just tell them the guy and they’ll kick him on to the coroner … ”

Clearly, redemption does not flourish under the southern sun. There are no second chances for such people, only the main chance. But nobody from New York can step back in self-righteous judgment at the sight of Miami police scandals. We have at least one such scandal in every New York generation since the mid-19th century. And late one night, sitting with a Miami cop in a place called Trainer’s, where judges and drug dealers both come to dine, I was asked, “How long can that mayor of yours last?” I wasn’t able to answer. The arrest rate at New York’s city hall hasn’t quite reached that of the Miami cops, but the crimes are about the same general thing: abuse of power for personal gain.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727098″ /]

In Miami, the corruption will go on and on, as long as millions of Americans maintain their passionate love affair with cocaine. Jesse Helms and his fellow yahoos should forget about corruption in Mexico for the moment and acknowledge the rot in a state that went fervently for Ronald Reagan. They might discover that drug dealers love conservatives in power; conservatives forbid things that racket guys can then sell. And while Americans keep buying expensive powders to shove up their noses, the bad guys will keep buying cops. How many. As many as they need.

A good number of Miami cops have the integrity to resist the lure of narcodollars. But just as surely, others will plunge into the swamp and rise covered with the kind of slime that will never wash off. They are there now, driving Chevies and longing for Porsches, dressed in baggy suits and lusting for Giorgio Armani, hearing preachments of denial, while drug dealers leave with the women, and the country at large throws roses to the greedy. They are men of the law but nobody in Miami would ever be surprised to see them leaving the sunshine in handcuffs. Their sweet decaying odor will not go away. ❖

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

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Planning a Winter Getaway to South Beach? Here’s Where to Eat

Fork in the Road thinks you should get out of town on occasion, since dozens of destinations lie within just a couple of hours of the city. In this Excursions column, we’re covering the best places to eat in popular weekend trip locations. 

When considering the map of winter weekend getaways, Miami’s South Beach falls somewhere between Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Not as many buffet deals as the former, more Europeans in Speedos than the latter. This cosmopolitan beach retreat features late-night hours, always-warm water, and globally conscious cuisine, making it a perfect winter redoubt.

Eleven is a one-stop pleasure shop featuring a rooftop restaurant and gentleman's club downstairs.
Eleven is a one-stop pleasure shop featuring a rooftop restaurant and gentleman’s club downstairs.

Miami’s dining scene has a flair for the dramatic, whether you plan on an evening with the fellas, gals, the significant other, or just yourself. Former Top Chef Carla Pellegrino’s rooftop Italian restaurant Touché (15 NE 11th Street; 305-358-9848) is a good bet for any party size, and offers plenty of specialties like lobster fra diavolo and veal saltimbocca. Pellegrino’s menu also includes sushi and sashimi as part of its lighter options; its elegant vibe, accented by sharply dressed waiters, might make you forget the festivities that await below. The restaurant is located on top of E11Even (29 NE 11th Street; 305-829-2911), a gentleman’s club that’s open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and showcases a variety of global DJs and EDM acts.

Lobster fra diavolo at Carla Pellegrino's Touché
Lobster fra diavolo at Carla Pellegrino’s Touché

If you haven’t been to Miami before, dining out on Collins Avenue is a given. You’ll find familiar New York names like Hakkasan and Scarpetta there, but you should consider something else, like Orange Blossom (2000 Collins Avenue; 305-763-8983). The restaurant offers bespoke cocktails and an Old Floridian feel, with dishes like chorizo and potatoes presented in a warm skillet. A selection of flatbreads, veal meatballs, and Florida black grouper fill out the diverse menu.

Florida black grouper at Orange Blossom
Florida black grouper at Orange Blossom

Puerto Sagua (700 Collins Avenue; 305-673-1115) is also a native Miami landmark for cuban sandwiches, croquetas, or oxtail stew with a side of fried plantains. A little off the main drag but worth the additional cardio is Yardbird Southern Table and Bar (1600 Lenox Avenue; 305-538-5220). Build your plate on something fried — chicken, bread, and frog legs fall under this category — and add biscuits and charred okra. For a post-meal beverage, end the night at Automatic Slims (1216 Washington Avenue; 305-672-2220), where you’ll find shots and hard rock. The bar is one of the few places in the area without a strict dress code or door policy, and the laid-back vibe assures a diverse and welcoming crowd.

Need a bachelor party plan?
Need a bachelor party plan?

 

Flanigan's offers dolphin sandwiches and drink specials for a more casual vibe.
Flanigan’s offers dolphin sandwiches and drink specials for a more casual vibe.

If it’s a no-frills local joint you’re after, head to Flanigan’s (2721 Bird Avenue; 305-446-1114). A dead ringer for Ernest Hemingway, “Big Daddy” Joe Flanigan’s face can be found throughout the restaurant, which offers dolphin sandwiches — the fish, not the mammal — and pitchers of beer on the cheap. Joe’s Stone Crabs (11 Washington Avenue; 305-673-0365) is another must-visit location, particularly now that it’s namesake is in season. Another casual place to chow down is LoKal (3190 Commodore Plaza; 305- 442-3377; additional locations). The sandwich spot is known for its use of local ingredients like guava jelly — its potato sticks–stuffed “Frita by Kush burger” is one of the better known in the city — and it boasts a large selection of craft beer.

LoKal's burgers are a popular choice with...locals.
LoKal’s burgers are a popular choice with…locals.

Before heading home, make it a point to enjoy a pre-flight brunch at Big Pink (157 Collins Avenue; 305-532-4700). The playful diner offers an all-day breakfast featuring hearty portions of omelettes and a classic NY lox and bagel plate, though it’s usually the masses of post-party people recuperating that steal the show. Of course, if you don’t have time, you can always grab a cubano or medianoche sandwich to go at one of the city’s numerous delis. Mary’s Coin Laundry and Deli (2542 SW 27th Avenue; 305-443-667) is perfect, considering you may need to clean up some evidence of a trip well played before heading back home.

Cuban sandwiches are everywhere, and some of the best are at deli/laundromats.
Cuban sandwiches are everywhere, and some of the best are at deli/laundromats.
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DJ Shadow

DJ, producer, and master record collector DJ Shadow is an instrumental hip hop legend. The Bay Area native released his first full length album in the mid-nineties and continued to thrive by producing beats and crafting sample based music. This summer, nearly two decades since his first release, DJ Shadow launched his new record label, Liquid Amber, with The Liquid Amber EP available for streaming. He has mentioned that his 2014 tour will be much different from his previous performances and showcase his adaptation to the contemporary DJ set. Not one for following the trends of DJs or electronic based music, DJ Shadow is known and respected for his commitment to his style. His future bass sound once got him booted from the decks of a fancy Miami nightclub, so arrive ready to hear and trust his selections.

Thu., Sept. 4, 8 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 5, 8 p.m., 2014

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The Purge: Anarchy Sets Up Frank Grillo to Finally Be the Leading Man

Sirens blare and an eerie voice announces that it’s best to remain indoors if you don’t plan to participate. While others make safety arrangements, and some sharpen their knives, one man loads his black, steel-armored car with plenty of guns and begins cruising. Fires erupt along the street, and gunshots and piercing screams fill the air.

In the black car is a man with a mission, and judging by his stern expression, nothing will get in his way. Cue a flicker in his rearview mirror: the beautiful woman and her young daughter held at gunpoint on the street behind him.

After cursing himself for what he’s about to do, the man gets out of the car, aims his gun, and pow. One shooter down, then another, then some fancy punches and kicks and some more pow-pow, and he has just saved two innocent lives.

The night of the purge was designed for society to release its harbored angst during a 12-hour period, when all crime is legal — go out there and kill some people! Saving people? That’s not right.

With its second installment and a new leader in charge of a merry pack of victims, The Purge: Anarchy sets up Frank Grillo to be the leading man he always knew he could be.

Unlike his most recent on-screen persona, Brock Rumlow (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), whom Grillo describes as “misunderstood,” the nameless Sergeant is more of a “good guy; a law-abiding citizen who was wronged.”

Sitting inside a large, air-conditioned RV away from the Miami heat, Grillo laces his fingers together and furrows his brow intently as he explains the motivations behind his character. Once a normal, everyday kind of guy, Sergeant’s life is one day tragically changed, “so he uses the purge as a mechanism to fill what he thinks is justice. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, and I think he proves that by stopping the car at the very beginning [of the film].

“He goes on to create these relationships while he’s running away trying to get these people to safety that he ends up specifically creating a meaningful relationship with the young girl in the group,” Grillo says. “She touches his heart and opens him up.”

That depth and roundness in a character are something one rarely sees in these sort of quickly produced, niche thriller films, and that is exactly what intrigued Grillo about the role. While there might be some visual indications in the film that Sergeant isn’t the nicest of people — such as his black wardrobe and suspicious talent with weapons — his trustworthiness is never questioned.

Sergeant is an unlikely hero, and after years of playing the supporting role, Grillo graciously demands to be taken seriously as the protagonist in The Purge: Anarchy.

He smiles with the modesty of a rising leading man and says, “It was great, you know, to be the guy.”

Yet, the promise of a prominent spot in the movie was not why Grillo initially agreed to the project. It was the script. As he explains it, part of his job as an actor is to serve the script. After reading the story for The Purge: Anarchy and being a fan of the first film, Grillo sat with director James DeMonaco and chatted about their corresponding visions.

“If I’m looking at it for what the best character is, then that’s not really looking at the bigger picture,” Grillo says, and the bigger picture here is a film that has the potential to frighten people, entertain people, but most importantly, make people think.

Grillo divides the main message of the film in two. For one, “we should all be very conscious of how we treat each other…theoretically, we should be getting along better and be further along as human beings and not wanting to kill each other.” And secondly (though it’s more of an add-on), “we all need to question our own motives about how we behave in times of crisis.”

Despite the plausible argument that the film is really led by an ensemble cast, Grillo’s Sergeant is clearly the unspoken front-runner. He becomes conscious of how he treats those around him, and he not only questions his motives but also reevaluates them.

“That’s what I love about the movie: It’s not just a scary movie, [but] it makes you think and wakes you up a bit,” he says.

Much like the Paranormal Activity franchise or the Saw series, where each film can stand alone and entertain audiences just the same, The Purge: Anarchy tells a unique story while throwing in some winks and nods to the original. Whereas Paranormal Activity boasts five (going on six films), and Saw has seven installments, The Purge has some catching up to do.

Does that mean audiences will get to purge roughly every 365 days? Maybe.

“James DeMonaco, Jason Blum, and I have all started to talk about it, and if the script is right and if the story holds up to this story, which I really love, then I’ll absolutely come back.”

Sergeant is the kind of guy who can take care of himself, and reluctantly also take care of others, Grillo says, adding how “he’s the type of guy who can ride the revolution.” He stops, eyes widening like a kid on Christmas morning, and exclaims, “Maybe that’s the name of it, maybe we’ll call it The Purge: Revolution! We just came up with the name of Purge 3!”

Perhaps The Purge: Uprising would be more fitting.

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Dylan Golden

In contrast to the bravado that pervades hip-hop culture, 22-year-old Dylan Golden’s sophomore album “Humble Beginnings,” scheduled for release in early 2015, doesn’t mince words about coming up from the mean streets of Miami. In this album pre-release show, the Brooklyn transplant mixes Afro-punk, socially conscious lyrics, dense harmonies, and a live band featuring saxophonist-cum-electronic producer Samir Zarif. Golden adopts a more wholesome outlook than the garden-variety upstart rapper; his collaboration with Zarif’s Pax Humana duo goes by the moniker PH.D, and tracks like “If I Told You,” dedicated to his mother, make him a momma’s boy who can spit.

Sat., July 5, 9:30 p.m., 2014

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FAIR PLAY

In a city as vibrant as New York, there’s no excuse for bare, boring apartment walls—unless you’re doing the minimalist thing. This week a number of art fairs will set up shop, providing the perfect opportunity to browse around for those future adornments or just some inspiration. The big one will be the Frieze Art Fair, bringing the work of over 1,000 artists to Randall’s Island Park. There’s also Select out of Miami (gets points for having a beer garden), NADA filling the enormous space at Basketball City, and the Pool and Outsider Art Fairs dedicated to unrepresented artists. Earlier in the week you can visit Spoonbill and Sugartown’s pop­up bookshop at the Armory, a new addition to The Art Show, to peruse some pieces you can actually afford to take home.

Fri., May 9, noon; Sat., May 10, noon; Sun., May 11, noon; Mon., May 12, noon, 2014

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Freestyle Forever

Believe it or not, a freestyle revival may be in the works: Where Dmitri From Paris recently opened a Boiler Room set with a freestyle remix of his own “A Reason for Living,” house legend Todd Terry’s latest LP was a collection of new freestyle tunes he crafted for singers with names as freestyle-ready as “Chioma” and “Scarlett Santana.” Regardless of the genre’s future prospects, Lehman College celebrates its glorious past at the eighth annual Freestyle Forever party. This year’s incarnation features openers such as Johnny O, best known for the hit “Fantasy Girl” and his influence on the Pet Shop Boys, and TKA, freestyle’s best known boy band. The headlining performances, meanwhile, come from Stevie B, the Miami artist who scored hits with “Dreaming of Love” and “Party Your Body,” and the legendary Lisa Lisa, whose “Take Me Home” remains a staple of throwback r&b mixes.

Sat., March 1, 8 p.m., 2014

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Sam Claflin and Jena Malone on Keeping The Hunger Games: Catching Fire PG-13

Through the soaring windows of the Mandarin Oriental Miami, it’s hard not to notice the blue skies and matching azure water. Most people find Miami’s beachy, serene views relaxing. But for fans of The Hunger Games, the vacation vista could just as easily conjure images of blister-forming nerve gas, vicious attack mutts, and a deadly countdown clock.

Those are just a few of the obstacles waiting for “tributes” inside an arena where they are tasked with fighting to the death in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, opening this Friday. The film’s setting does have certain creepy similarities to local Miami topography: a humid, jungle-like landscape anchored by a body of salt water. From their seats at the Mandarin, actors Jena Malone, who plays the bristly Johanna Mason, and Sam Claflin, as the womanizing Finnick Odair, agree. “From what I can see of Miami, I’d say yes, it’s very similar,” Claflin replies, gesturing toward the view.

Don’t expect these stars to volunteer as tributes themselves, though. In a real-life Miami-set Hunger Games, Malone says, “[As Johanna] I would be good wherever you drop me… [but] me as Jena? Oh no, I would do horrible!” This town is too bright, too hot, and too humid, she explains — plus, she’d have to work on her bikini body.

Claflin’s Finnick may come from a district that has a rich history of fishing and plenty of seawater and sunshine, he says, but “the sunshine would kill me… I’d fail miserably; I’d be one of the first to drown.” Hailing from England, he’s used to some chillier weather, so “give me some snow and maybe I’ll be OK,” he says with a laugh.

Antipathy for warm climates aside, Claflin didn’t have much difficulty stepping into the role of Finnick. It doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes. In the novel, author Suzanne Collins describes him as “the handsome, bronze-haired guy from District 4.” He’s got that description covered.

“As an actor, stepping into the shoes of Finnick, by no means did I ever want to play the insecurities that he has,” Claflin says, “because what actually makes him so popular and gives him the reputation he’s got is the fact that he is just who everyone thinks he is, which is a confident exterior… I was just trying to portray him as best I could: the charm, the sexual nature of his being.” Claflin interrupts himself with an oh-so-charming laugh: “I mean, I think I had [that part] already.”

Uh-huh.

Malone’s Johanna has more complexity. In the film, Malone says, “Johanna is playing for two sides of the team, but her heart is kind of always on one side.” We’ll notice a distinct arc in her character: “You think she is one of the enemies, but maybe she actually has different motivations.”

Of course, those are just two of countless interpretations of the characters from Collins’ wildly popular series. There are dozens of fan-driven websites dedicated to the lives of Johanna and Finnick. Fans have created “chapters and chapters and chapters about these characters,” says Malone, and adding those to Collins’ novel, “you can’t help but already imagine who they are, who they were, [and] what they’ve been [through].” To craft her portrayal of Johanna, Malone says, she leaned on Collins and film director Francis Lawrence for guidance. But she wouldn’t share any personal insights from the inside of her character’s head. Malone stresses, “These characters are such icons, in the sense of just right within this generation. I wouldn’t want to tell [fans] whether they’re right or wrong, you know what I mean?”

There’s one thing most fans can agree on, though: They want to see these characters get busy. Johanna and Finnick are highly sexual characters, especially for a young adult novel. When Johanna first meets Katniss, she takes off her tree costume (District 7 is known for its lumber) and is essentially nude. It’s just one of several times Johanna strips down to her birthday suit throughout the novel, and according to Malone, “We’re very true to the book.” But Claflin interjects, “We don’t see enough!” This is a PG-13 movie, after all.

Making a film for a highly engaged, highly demanding fan base is new to Malone and Claflin. Malone, for one, is enjoying the challenge. “I mean, it’d be weird if we walked into these characters and everyone was like, ‘Nah, I don’t really give a shit.'” The best part, she says, is the story continues in Mockingjay, the final installment in Collins’ trilogy.

For Claflin, beginning work on Mockingjay will be like embarking on a journey with Finnick, one he couldn’t be happier to start. “[Between] where we leave Finnick in Catching Fire to where you pick up in Mockingjay, there are some seriously messed-up things that have happened. And to have the opportunity to go on that journey and to work out the sort of transitional period that’s not written about… is really exciting, and I’m really looking forward to portraying the darker side of Finnick.”

This interview originally appeared in the Miami New Times.

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A Frank Portrayal of Human Trafficking in Una Noche

“The only things to do down here are sweat and fuck,” we’re told not too long into Una Noche, a lyric-then-raw drama about a teenage brother and sister who scrape by in Havana, dream of Miami, and ultimately brave the 90 miles of Florida straits between the two. As they get their boat together, writer-director Lucy Mulloy honors—with great energy and even greater compassion—the sweat/fuck lives of the poorest residents of an island that has increasingly become a sex-tourism hot spot. A filmmaker of unstinting frankness, she reveals the harassment faced by young men and women alike, as well as the everyday business of body-selling, straight and trans, sometimes dwelling on the bodies themselves with a surprising tenderness—the prostitutes become people. We also see tourist dick, which to the Havana PD is just as sacrosanct as the tourist’s dollar. When he accidentally bloodies a white john, young Raul (Dariel Arrechaga), a restaurant worker pawed at by his supervising chef, knows that he now must leave the island before the cops get him. (Earlier, on the street, we hear a security guard bark to his superiors the authorities’ idea of a crisis: “There’s a citizen talking to a blonde.”) Raul, friend Elio (Javier Núñez Florián), and Elio’s sister, Lila (Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre), set out at last, and this urban slice-of-life becomes a tale of arguing kids, each touchingly preoccupied with his or her own sexual identity, all at odds with the elements themselves. The final, moving, nerve-wracking reels are all sea, sky, and desperation—and, oh, shit, is that a fin in the water?

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Michael Bay Artificially Inflates the Already Insane Yet True Events of Pain & Gain

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes life has cheated him. Doesn’t America promise riches and luxury to people who deserve them? He’s worked hard to build his body into a hulking knot of muscles; success should follow. But Lugo—the lead in Michael Bay’s neon-noir ode to Miami, muscle tone, and the modern American dream—is stuck as an underpaid personal trainer at Miami Lakes’ Sun Gym, where he boosts the confidence of customers far less chiseled than he and dreams of a better (read: richer) life.

Inspired to be a “doer” after a seminar featuring inspirational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), Lugo turns his newfound patriotic zeal into action. He rounds up two accomplices: fellow body-obsessed gym buddy Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), whose steroid use has “messed [him] up down there,” and recently released convict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a mountain of man who found Jesus and sobriety in lockup but still harbors a pesky violent streak. Together, they plot to kidnap Lugo’s rich and ever-sneering Colombian client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and torture him until he gives them everything he owns: his swanky mansion, successful deli, bright orange speedboat, the works.

Bay’s film is based on, and mostly faithful to, the eponymous true story penned by Pete Collins for the Miami New Times in late 1999. The Sun Gym Gang isn’t made up of professional mobsters. They’re musclebound egotists with a sense of importance more inflated than their steroid-pumped pecs, and Bay wastes no opportunity for laughs at their expense. They bungle the Kershaw operation in a series of screwups that make the buddy cops in Bad Boys, their predecessors in the Bay movie oeuvre, look James Bond-suave. Dressed in military fatigues, they show up at Kershaw’s home expecting to catch him alone; he’s hosting a Seder. They target a car at a shopping center, but it’s the wrong one, and Kershaw drives away unaware.

Those might sound like juvenile, sitcom-style capers, but as Bay reminds his audience at the film’s beginning and again later on, they were real events—real being a relative term in Miami. For moviegoers whose disbelief is still sore from being suspended so high above Bay’s earlier CGI-heavy festivals of eye candy like Transformers, the “true story” label keeps the focus on how fun it is to watch these guys.

And the Sun Gym dudes are fun to watch, especially when they finally acquire Kershaw’s money, and their own grasp on reality spins out of control. Johnson, as the most timid and complex of the three characters, portrays a relapsing Doyle with both sympathy and humor. Mackie does his best with the script’s dick jokes. (Doorbal blows all of his new cash on erectile-dysfunction treatment.) When Lugo straight-facedly convinces his dimwitted stripper girlfriend, Sorina Luminita (Bar Paly), that he’s a CIA agent, the scene is so funny you forget what a recklessly sexist “dumb blond” character Sorina is. (Hey, she’s based on a real woman.)

Meanwhile, private investigator Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) and Kershaw stake out the gang to try to persuade Miami police to take their tale seriously. What, the cops don’t believe sadistic beefcakes in wacky disguises kidnapped a Colombian and nearly beat him to death with dildos over something other than drugs?

It’s easy to see why Miami police brush them off: The story is unbelievable. During one particularly absurd chase scene, Bay stops the action to remind viewers that “this is still a true story.” Perhaps that’s why the director was so drawn to this project, so committed to telling the Sun Gym Gang saga on the big screen that he agreed to direct another Transformers cash cow in return for Paramount Pictures’ financial backing. Maybe he wanted to show his critics they’re wrong, that crazy action-movie schemes with explosions and car chases aren’t just the stuff of flashy summer flicks—that they exist in real life too.

Though this story needs no embellishment, Bay can’t help himself. He adds wild sidebars and shoot-outs to the already-insane material. At one point, a character feeds his own severed toe to a chihuahua. Bay injects slo-mo effects, Instagram-esque freeze-frames, and B-movie-style gore. (Those who remember the Sun Gym Gang’s murdered victims probably won’t appreciate seeing one of their heads explode like a pumpkin beneath a falling barbell weight.) These cheap tricks work like movie steroids, unnaturally inflating the appearance of what’s happening onscreen—and diminishing its overall, uh, potency.

When the story runs off the rails and crashes headfirst into a too-perfect ending, it’s because Bay was led astray by the same things that got the Sun Gym Gang into this mess in the first place: superficiality, ambition, and the belief that reality just isn’t good enough.