By 4 a.m., the crowd at the rooster ring at the town’s fairground was rowdy. The men had been drinking for hours, and they were waiting for a good fight. In the center of the ring, under a cluster of bright overhead lights, one rooster stomped on another’s head, pecking ferociously at the motionless bird’s body. The victorious rooster puffed out his chest, craning his neck upwards and then slamming his beak down into his opponent’s skull, biting, and ripping at the flesh around the defeated bird’s eye. A referee and two trainers circled the birds, watching intently. Away from the crowd, along the white brick perimeter wall, an old woman with grey, frizzy hair sat under the dry, palm leaves piled onto the rickety, aging scaffoldings that served as a roof for the arena.
A muscular, frowning man dressed black jeans and a black rancher’s shirt stood next to the machine gun-carrying soldiers in blue military attire with patches on their arms of the Mexican flag. He chatted idly with officers while scanning the faces in the crowd.
“That guy is definitely a narco,” a man by the side of the ring said quietly.
A few days earlier, the same man showed up at the rooster ring, and sat in the front row with a beautiful young woman with bright silk shirt.
In the small towns that line the beaches of Guerrero, Mexico, south of the vacation city Acapulco there’s a well-established tradition of rooster fights. For centuries, the violent battles between the birds have been a favorite pastime for the farm workers and ranchers who live along the coast. It’s a sport that was inherited from Europeans who learned about it from traders from China. What’s new in Guerrero, however, is the gristly violence that has emerged in recent years as a result of feuds between the splintering groups of drug trafficking narcos. Residents have gotten used to stories about cartel hitmen leaving the brutalized bodies of their rivals in the street with threatening notes. Acapulco, the biggest resort city in the area, is now considered to be one of the most violent cities in the country. The government has not yet figured out how to contain the warring drug trafficking groups.
The cartel men now attend the rooster fights, betting large sums of the cash they earn from the drug trade. The battle for lucrative drug routes along the coast has turned Guerrero into one of the most violent states in Mexico over the course of the past year. As local criminal outfits battle infiltrators from Los Zetas, a narco gang that is based in the eastern states along the border but has spread across the country and is arguably Mexico’s most violent trafficking organization, residents have become accustomed to news reports of grisly violence. Mutilated corpses and headless bodies have been dumped in the street. People from the coastal farm communities have also gotten used to being stopped and questioned by gunmen from the cartels, who eye outsiders and drivers with out-of-state license plates with suspicion.
Under the lights at the Petetlan fairground, one rooster lay limp on the ground, it’s neck bent awkwardly and one of its legs crumpled, apparently broken. The other rooster puffed out its chest and looked around distractedly at the crowd.
“HE WOOOOOON!” A skinny, middle-aged man with glasses and a button-up shirt shouted over the loudspeaker. The “winner” limped away, unable to lift his foot. He had clearly been badly injured in the fight. The battle over, conversations resumed. Grizzly men seated by the plywood wall next to the cockpit poured glasses of whiskey. Young women with long fingernails and heavy makeup talked animatedly, taking pictures of each other on pocket-sized digital cameras.