On a rainy Friday night, the streets of the northern Los Héroes neighborhood were empty and cold. Colombia had just been eliminated from the continent’s Copa América soccer tournament, and a certain gloom had fallen over the capital. Approaching the Club Gallístico San Miguel, the oldest cockfighting ring in Bogotá, I was relieved to hear raucous laughter and folk music breaking the silence.
Founded sixty years ago by two brothers from the Eastern Plains, the club was a mainstay of Liberal Party power. Former Presidents Alfonso López Michelsen, Julio César Turbay, Virgilio Barco and Carlos Lleras Restrepo would host onsite political and social events. The candidate Luís Carlos Galán delivered a ringside speech just twenty days before his assassination. While Conservatives are no longer denied entrance, aspiring Liberal congressmen still frequent the building.
Upon arrival, a teenage boy was sweeping feathers from the red felt floor of the fighting pit. A dozen bright murals of roosters decorated the walls around an arena that seats up to one thousand spectators. Hanging from above were flickering fluorescent tubes, metal birdcages, and whiteboards listing the weights and origins of the gamecocks. Beside the painted “No Smoking” signs, men lit up cigarettes.
Between matches, patrons headed to an adjacent room filled with red plastic tables to drink cans of Poker beer and eat slabs of chicken served on green plantain leaves. A nearby graffiti cartoon portrayed a menacing rooster disguised as a chef and cooking a human. Rancheras, a genre of traditional Mexican music, wailed from a jukebox displaying a portrait of the sombrero-donning legend Vicente Fernández.
A group of Colombians preparing a contender for the next bout gestured for me to join them. They trimmed the bird’s feathers and crest as we took shots of aguardiente, the local liquor derived from sugarcane. The cock’s owner, Ernesto, whistled while he shaved down the natural spurs on the animal’s legs with a knife, fitted them with metal hooks, and secured the lethal weapons with white tape.
Outside of cockfighting, which is legal across the country, mature roosters are naturally aggressive towards other males in an ongoing struggle for dominance. In the blood sport, they are selectively bred and conditioned for increased stamina, strength, and speed. As Ernesto explained to me, “A well-trained cock should always win. This isn’t a competition among roosters; it’s trainer versus trainer.”
In the audience, owners held restless birds on their laps, which let out loud crows every few minutes. Among the hundred viewers, I only saw one woman. The men were middle-aged and all wore jeans, their hair closely cropped or balding. Many had grown up outside of Bogotá in the departments of Nariño, Huila, Valle del Cauca and Norte de Santander. One group had draped neatly folded ponchos with bright emblems of gamecocks over their shoulders.
As soon as a bought began, men yelled out bets: “Twenty thousand pesos for the spotted one!” or “Fifty thousand on the brown head!” The gambles were informal and based only on la palabra de gallero, the cockfighter’s word, which is reportedly so credible that the phrase is repeated when closing business deals outside of the ring. Immediately after a match, men crossed the room to pay off their debts.
Up to one thousand dollars can change hands during each of the fifty fights that take place on average every Wednesday and Friday night at the Club Gallístico San Miguel. Each round is limited to ten minutes, but a cock will typically be killed in half of that time. As one Colombian explained, wagers are made largely on faith: “Nobody has any clue what they’re doing. I usually make up what I have lost by the end of the night.”
I was brought up to the front row for Ernesto’s round. His rooster was bright white, and the opponent a majestic black with streaks of dark green. Two judges in red vests inspected the birds and wiped down their metal talons with rubbing alcohol. My host leaned over the wooden tops of the fighting ring, his arms stiff with anticipation. A man next to me spat on the floor several times.
When the cocks were released, they immediately began to peck at one another. The crowd made kissing sounds with their lips, interrupted only by the rapid flutter of wings as the combatants rose a foot off the ground to slash with their spurs. Ernesto’s bird was rapidly stained with blood, his head resembling an eraser tip. As he stood triumphantly over his lifeless opponent, tufts of feathers floated through the air like dandelion seeds.
Several hours before dawn, I made my way out of the building, passing by the decorated weight scales long since replaced with digital systems. Because Ernesto hails from the municipality in Tolima where the FARC guerilla group was born, the club locals had gifted me the unfortunate nickname of “Timochenko’s companion,” in reference to the current rebel commander. As I closed the door behind me, they all called out, “Don’t forget to come back next Friday!”