Puerto Rico battles to save official cockfights
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Friday July 27, 2012 – Its many opponents consider cockfighting a barbarous sport fit to be banned, but in Puerto Rico it is a legal, popular and highly lucrative activity providing valuable revenue for government coffers.
So much so that the United States territory's government is battling to keep the blood sport thriving, as many matches go underground to avoid fees and admission charges levied by official clubs. Although long in place, those costs have become burdensome for some as the island endures a fifth year of economic hardship.
The business once generated $100million a year in revenue for government-regulated clubs across the island, which is among the few places in the world where such fights remain legal. Recent figures are unavailable, but it is said that revenue at such clubs has plummeted.
"This year has been a death blow," said Angel Ortiz, longtime owner of Las Palmas cockfighting club in Bayamon. "All the cockfighting clubs in Puerto Rico are empty."
The territory's Sports and Recreation Department operates Ortiz's club and others that together have grossed about $30 million a year in bets alone. It's an industry that employs about 100,000 people and draws an estimated 1 million spectators a year, but that number has been dropping, said Carlos Lopez, president of Puerto Rico's cockfighting commission, which oversees the clubs.
The Spanish introduced cockfighting to Puerto Rico in the 16th century, and the sport was officially recognized for the first time in April 1770. The practice was banned after the US invaded the island in 1898, and it wasn't until August 1933 that it won official status and became known as the "gentleman's sport" because of its honour-based betting system in which men yell bets at each other and later pay them.
Cockfighting is allowed in other US territories, including Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. While it is also legal in Puerto Rico, many matches still take place in secret to escape the official fees.
Terry Mills, who investigates blood sports for the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the group opposes all cockfights regardless of whether they are held in legal or illegal venues.
During a fight, gamecocks repeatedly peck at each other with their sharp beaks, raising and kicking their legs fitted with plastic spurs that can cut deeply. A winner is declared if one of the animals dies, runs away or falls and fails to get up within one minute.
"Gamecocks are subjected to horrific abuse," Mills said. "We oppose fighting any animal for entertainment or profit."
But in October 2010, Puerto Rico legislators voted for a widely-lauded resolution to protect cockfights, stating they're an integral part of the island's folklore and patrimony. Subsequent legislation to crack down on illegal fights has received a lukewarm response.
Puerto Rican cock-fighting has long been considered a social equalizer, with everyone from farmhands to business executives sitting elbow-to-elbow at fights. It's accessible to all, from those who can afford only one scraggly gamecock to reggaeton singers who buy gamecocks at $3,000 a pop.
Ortiz's club is among Puerto Rico's largest, but on a recent Friday the cries of about 25 men urging their gamecocks to kill each other reverberated across a half-empty venue that once was filled beyond capacity.
"The number of clandestine fights is proliferating," Lopez said. "It's so much easier in a shrinking economy to get 20 or 30 people together and fight the gamecocks on a farm or in the back of a business."
Puerto Rico currently has 86 government-regulated cockfighting clubs, down from 107 in recent years, according to Rep. Angel Rodriguez Miranda, who recently submitted a bill to strengthen penalties against those organizing or participating in clandestine fights.
Rodriguez withdrew the bill after the Senate rejected it earlier this month.
Legislators and police have long hesitated to crack down on clandestine fights and get involved in what many consider a cultural bastion.
Senator Antonio Fas Alzamora, who voted against the proposed bill, said he opposes clandestine fights but doesn't believe penalties would deter anyone.
"I chose to leave things as they are because I'd be changing what has been a tradition, a cockfighting culture that I respect," he said.
Those accused of organizing or participating in clandestine fights face up to $5,000 in fines or up to six months in jail, but the law is rarely enforced, Lopez said. Raids seldom lead to convictions because of technicalities.