Former Salsa Club Attracts Notorious Crowd

By David Ovalle, The Miami Herald

Feb. 26–Cuban exiles flocked to the riverside club for years to dance salsa. A party cruise debarked there every week. Antonio Banderas even filmed a scene of Miami Rhapsody on its dance floor.

But Centro Espanol, open since the early 1970s, has morphed into the most notorious, crime-ridden strip club in Miami-Dade County, police say.

Detectives regularly raid the club near Miami International Airport for prostitution and drugs — logging 33 arrests one night alone this month.

Suspected gang members from Pembroke Pines wanted in a triple shooting recently told investigators the club is known across South Florida for allowing underage patrons.

“It’s gotten to a whole new level,” Miami-Dade Capt. Jorge Garcells said of the crime at Centro Espanol.

The club has become such a problem that the department has taken Centro Espanol to the county’s nuisance abatement board, which aims to curb crime on problem properties, usually drug houses.

The strip club, at 3615 NW South River Dr., goes before the board again in March.

The club appeared before the board in October 2004 and agreed to fix outside lighting and add extra security personnel.

“It’s all lies,” Maria Besancon, one of the club’s owners, said of the police allegations.

“We’ve been open 40 years. We were the first nightclub for poor people.”

An attorney for the club, Joseph Portuando, says the club has complied with the board’s requests.

He said Miami-Dade police officers “have exaggerated the situation out there.”

The longtime owners, Abdon Grau, his sister Maria and her husband Jean Pierre Besancon, built the club on a two-acre property on the Miami River.

The land, bought in 1971 for $37,000, was largely abandoned with “hippies” camping out on the river banks, Maria Besancon said.

Future music legends such as Celia Cruz played there. Grau built a chickee across the parking lot and renamed the part of the bar “Mi Bohio.” He even fixed up a boat, called El Galeon, and started a weekly musical cruise down the river.

A juice bar sold drinks and tamales for 75 cents each. A tent covered the dance patio outside.

“This is a family kind of place where we sell things cheaply and 350 people come most Sundays,” Grau told The Miami Herald in 1991.

“It’s a clean place where people can come to relax,” Grau said.

Bernardo Benes, a well-known Cuban exile, remembers going to the club with his wife during the 1970s.

“It was a nice place. They had good music, food. It was a family place,” Benes said.

In the late 1980s, county inspectors told the owners everything but the original building had been illegally built.

For years, the owners and the county haggled.

Like any nightspot, clubgoers had brushes with the law — in 1991, a man named Rafael Salvi was gunned down in the bathroom. Salvi had laughed at a man who had just been doused with beer by a woman.

After a two-year closure for the illegal building, it reopened in 1999 as a mostly gay club renamed the Waterfront.

Today, the Spanish-style building is again known as Centro Espanol. The land is much more valuable — in 2004, it was worth $405,000. Last year, it had jumped to $600,000, county records show.

Planes en route to MIA still thunder overhead. Rusty warehouses dot South River Drive. Tourists frequent two rental car agencies that operate across the street.

Signs at Centro Espanol advertise “Go Go Girls,” $3 screwdrivers and $2 Cuba Libres on Tuesdays.

“Our dancers are not employees of El Centro Espanol” a sign reads.

The 60-foot former party boat, El Galeon, is still moored behind the club. Police say condoms are often found strewn inside.

Since mid-1999, police have logged nearly 400 incidents there, everything from reports of vehicle burglaries to shots fired to fights, statistics show.

Robberies and shootings around the club are frequent. A stripper robbed another stripper in November by slashing her under the eye, police say.

Prostitution is not unheard of at strip clubs, but Miami-Dade police say the women operate blatantly and sex happens in any dark corner of the club.

“By allowing prostitution, they’re creating a crime wave,” said Miami-Dade Major Ruben Galindo, the commander of the airport station. “And they’re catering to juveniles.”

In September 2004, 41-year-old Florentino Perdomo was shot and killed in a robbery attempt in the nightclub parking lot. His killers were later arrested.

In December, three bouncers were wounded by bullets during a fight. Airport station detectives later arrested three teenagers suspected as members of a small-time gang called the Bang-Bang Boys.

On Feb. 10, a sting netted 33 arrests, mostly on prostitution and drug charges. Eleven firearms and cash found in several safes were confiscated.

Portuando, one of the club’s attorneys, criticized police, saying officers seized club money without giving proper receipts. He added that any night spot is bound to attract a few bad clients.

Said Portuando: “I can guarantee if you go to the most elegant place on Lincoln Road in South Beach, you’ll find a piece of crack in a purse.”

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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