Roosters Bred for Cockfighting Travel from NY to Mexico

A gamecock waiting its turn at a fight in Mexico like one of those described in the article (Photo by David Boté Estrada, Creative commons license)

A gamecock waiting its turn at a fight in Mexico like one described in the article (Photo by David Boté Estrada, Creative commons license)

To the beat of a drum a rooster bleeds to death, sharp blades attached to his yellow legs, in the middle of an improvised cockpit enveloped in the gray dust of Atlixco, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Audience members toast to the life or death of their roosters with a type of moonshine that burns like fire. Those are the most vivid memories that Félix Barca (as he asked to be identified) has of his childhood.

“It is an art to breed gamecocks from the moment they hatch,” said Barca punctuating his sentence with a fist bang on the table at a bar in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “A good trainer is loyal to his animal until it either kills or dies in a palenque (cockfighting pit). It’s pure passion.”

Barca, a gamecock trainer who came to New York in 1990, started breeding roosters for cockfighting in his native Atlixco when he was 11 years old. At 17, he started his own farm with around 30 roosters in the backyard of his humble house. “No one can stop this tradition,” said Barca. “We have it in our blood.”

Barca speaks passionately about the trade of breeding roosters in farms on the outskirts of New York City and in Arkansas. When the birds turn 18 months old, he “crosses them” into Mexico through the city of McAllen, Texas, to be used in the country’s largest palenques or cockfights.

“The roosters need to acclimatize, so they are left in Mexico for 5 or 6 months to get them ready to fight right when they turn 2 years old,” said Barca. “A young cock is no good for the palenque.”

A forbidden activity

The Animal Welfare Act, a federal law, forbids interstate transportation of roosters for cockfighting purposes. However, Barca travels from New York or Arkansas to Texas carrying up to 60 roosters stuffed in tiny wooden coops in his van.

“When the border patrol asks questions, you tell them that they are exhibition animals, and they buy it,” said Barca. “Thousands and thousands of roosters are being crossed illegally every month from the U.S. into Mexico.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not immediately comment when El Diario asked them about this practice or if there was an ongoing investigation.

Barca’s breeding farm and the one his associates keep in Arkansas are nothing new. On YouTube, breeders like the Anorve-Méndez brothers exhibit the full-blooded roosters that have been ordered from Tlacoachistlahuaca, in the state of Guerrero.

Breeders say that raising roosters in the U.S. to be used in cockfights in Mexico is fairly common. The cost of a gamecock on the market can range between $600 and $1,000 depending on the breed, but the juiciest earnings come from gambling.

An offensive launched by U.S. authorities drove the breeders to seek less risky alternatives in order to preserve the cockfighting tradition ‒ which animal rights activists consider bloody and cruel ‒ and continue to cash in on the lucrative bets.

Barca said that the odyssey of getting the birds to their destination in Mexico also implies bribing customs agents in that country. “It’s a negotiation,” he said. “I have paid between $10 and $30 per rooster to have them let me go through without problems. You need to be clever and have a lot of contacts.”

Operatives in NY

“Cockfighting is a cruel, abusive and barbaric practice that tortures animals, endangers the health and safety of the public and is known to facilitate other crimes,” said New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a press release in February 2014.

That year, Schneiderman’s office – alongside police departments throughout New York state and animal protection organizations – spearheaded “Operation Angry Birds” leading to the dismantling of the largest cockfighting ring in the state’s history. During the operation, 1,600 roosters were rescued and 70 people – most of them Latino – were arrested in three counties.

Cockfighting is illegal in the 50 states. The last one to ban the practice was Louisiana. Washington, D.C. and 30 other states have made it illegal to possess roosters for fighting purposes, and 40 states impose fines on people who participate in cockfights as spectators. However, the activity is legal throughout most of the Mexican territory.

Barca, who became a U.S. citizen 15 years after he came from Puebla, said that he started breeding roosters in New York as soon as he arrived, as well as participating in clandestine cockfights in Los Angeles and Sacramento, California. He later joined other breeders to organize palenques in Arizona.

Although the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has argued that this “bloody tradition” promotes “enthusiasm for violence,” Barca is said to have no remorse for the deaths of these birds for the entertainment of cockfighting enthusiasts.

“Cockfights are a deplorable activity in which roosters specifically bred for aggressiveness are forced to fight to the death for entertainment,” said Terry Mills, director of ASPCA’s Blood Sports division of the Field Investigations Team. “These birds undergo indescribable pain before and after the fights.”

The organization encouraged people to report if they suspect that animal fights are being performed in communities in their area.

The long trip from New York to Puebla

Barca has the appearance of a typical immigrant worker, which helps him pass unnoticed. Every year during cockfighting season ‒ from November to June, when the roosters are “dressed,” or covered in plumage ‒ he drives from New York to Arkansas, where he has close to 300 full-blooded roosters whose names include Albany, Sweater and Giros. The drive takes between 22 and 26 hours.

“I stay in Arkansas for a few days with my associates, watching the cocks fight and having a good time. Then, I drive to Texas, which takes me 14 or 16 hours,” said Barca. “After crossing the border, I drive from Reynosa to Puebla for two days.”

Barca said that he feeds the roosters in Arkansas and then in Texas, where he also washes them. The birds are not fed again until they reach Puebla or the cities where the palenques are held. “Roosters have a lot of endurance. They can tolerate much more than humans,” he said.

To justify his activities, Barca said: “It is the same as sacrificing a chicken to make soup.” He added: “Even [George] Washington, so venerated by gringos, used to love cockfights,” a fact backed by historians.

Penalties, blades and bets

In New York, cockfighting and the possession of gamecocks in places set up for cockfights are serious felonies punishable with a maximum penalty of four years in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000. Being a spectator at one of these events is considered a misdemeanor and could carry a sentence of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Three types of blades are used in palenques to speed up the death of the roosters: needles, the Filipino blade  – measuring 4 or 5 inches – and the one-inch Mexican blade. In some fights, spurs are tied onto the roosters’ legs.

Gamecock breeders who travel from the U.S. to Mexico to attend palenques pay between MXN$10,000 (nearly US$604) and MXN$50,000 (nearly US$3,020) to participate, a minimal investment considering the earnings made on bets and the relatively low expense of breeding the birds. According to Barca, the food, medication and cockfighting equipment industries are fueled by this clandestine activity.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Celebrating Community and Ethnic Media at the 14th Annual Ippies Awards

  2. People should be able to do what they want with there property. Have you ever look into chicken production for human consumption. Where is the life in that. If a rooster proves his worth he is held as a brood dock and has many offspring. That’s a life. You people have to much time on your hands and in turn take basic rights out of ours

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