The following article was written by Richard McColl, a freelance journalist and author based in Bogota, Colombia. He is currently pursuing a PhD and also runs a small hotel, La Casa Amarilla, in colonial Mompos. His podcasts “Colombia Calling” can be downloaded on iTunes and Stitcher.
To my lily-livered liberal and pinko middle class sensibilities, cockfighting is a reprehensibly vicious and nauseating sport. I personally cannot understand the attraction of something so bloodthirsty and vile as putting two animals – trained entirely to kill – into an arena together under the watchful gaze of a money-crazed crowd spitting rabidly for blood and death.
But that’s my take on this blood sport. And were I to express such an opinion in my town of Mompos, Colombia, I would be laughed off as a meddling gringo with neither a respect for nor an understanding of local culture. It’s not my place to pass judgment. And as hard as this might be to stomach for some, I know when to keep my opinions to myself.
I’ll admit to have attended several cockfights in Mompos and even in Bogotá. While I firmly believe that some of the disdain that the spectacle receives in Colombia finds its roots in the elitism and classism so prevalent here in that it is a sport for the “poor”, I have seen high-ranking politicians in attendance at the Gallera San Miguel near to the monument of Los Heroes in Bogotá.
I have both won money and lost it. Five dollars here and five dollars there, bets placed so as to ingratiate myself to those perhaps less than content at a gringo in attendance with a sizeable camera and taking photos of their grisly pastime.
In Mompos the cockfight is a community event. Every Momposino knows at which gallera and when the sport will be taking place. I don’t openly promote the cockfights, but should an enthusiast of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez express an interest, I will accompany them to the Gallera Santa Cruz. In my experience, it’s not the fight which has been of most interest, but the build-up and the people watching.
These roosters, specifically bred to increase their strength and stamina, are gamecocks, hardly something for your culinary appreciation since they will have been trained for two years, in Colombia at least, pecking at discarded tires carefully scented in pheromones to increase their aggression. It is here, during the pre-fight rituals that you can appreciate to a certain extent the history of the sport.
Maybe you’ll see a version of the humble farmer (from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel“) with his prized possession, pinning all of his hopes on a victory to lift his family out of poverty.
Perhaps you’ll be enthralled by the almost superstitious rituals of preparation before the fight. The gamecocks are weighed and placed in categories, each owner and his team get a table upon which to prepare, fastening with wax carefully crafted spurs made from tortoise-shell to the heel of their fighter. It is here that gamblers can view each animal and choose who to back and for how much. Well-spent, well-worn peso bills change hands.
As one fight comes to an end, the shouting climaxes in blue murder. Fistfuls of crumpled bills are held aloft in victory. The bird’s owner shows off his winning beast to the crowd as if the win is his own doubling – if indeed it were possible – his machista standing. The loser, if he is too injured has his neck wrung there before everyone.
The coldest and cheapest beer on offer in Mompos’s stifling and routinely high temperatures is unarguably on sale in the Gallera. People shuffle up on to the bleachers to watch the fight. I know most of the spectators. Polite and courteous by day, their demeanor changes dramatically in the Gallera. I prefer to remain at the back, not hiding, but from a decent vantage point for the big picture. Not viewing the fight but watching the gambling.
Once I was invited to the front of the gallera to “enjoy” the spectacle from the front row. My knees would not fit between the bench and the short space provided before the concrete wall overlooking the ring. Sitting awkwardly my neighbor lent in: “You are a special guest, you must sit here with us. Not up there at the back.”
His breath reeking of cigarettes and whisky, his bloodshot eyes spoke volumes. I was being watched. My presence over time had not gone unnoticed. My “benefactor” had done time in prison for murder and now he was insisting that I start gambling on his chosen fighters. I am sure that whether I won or lost he stood to gain. How to extract myself from this situation?
In the end mine was a cop out. I feigned for a bathroom break and hopped on a motorbike home. I have not returned to the Gallera Santa Cruz since.
There is of course a sinister side to this barbarous sport in that it has been known to be the preferred pastime of the feared right-wing paramilitaries. I have interviewed locals who have attended such spectacles in the past and vouch for the fact that untold bundles of dollars have been tossed around haphazardly in spoils. Even the deceased emerald tsar Victor Carranza is said to have enjoyed a cockfight in his day gambling, legend has it, with emeralds. I ask you this though, who would be foolish enough to claim their winnings from Carranza?
Who am I to get involved in condemning this sport? As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, it’s not my sport, it offends me to the core, but in Colombia, it’s here to stay whether the authorities make it illegal or not. Different cultures have different views on morality, but this does not make it any less savage.
Once I placed a recording of a cockfight on YouTube. After receiving a slurry of hate mail and letters from the American Humane Society, my account was blocked. Sourcing the origins of most of the virulent criticism which came my way, I was able to locate one culprit in particular. He was a teenager in Kansas, interestingly enough his complete feed on the website in question, were recordings of playground brawls between his friends.
Check out Richard’s IndieGogo campaign for Colombia Calling Magazine.
Watch a short documentary from Puerto Rico which tries to cast cockfighting in a favorable light.