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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.
Two men removed the pieces of plywood that separated the crowd from the violence in the ring and rushed out under the bright overhead lights to sweep up the feathers and brush the small puddles of blood into the dirt.
Over the loudspeaker, Mexican folk music played loudly. “Onnne pulled out a pistooooool, the other was left badly hurrrttt...” the singer crooned.
A boy in a blue and orange polo shirt and a straw trilby hat yawned. His mother, holding her purse in her lap, looked out across the ring at the crowd. Attendants shuffled through the audience, counting through stacks of peso bills, collecting bets for the next round. The soldiers with machine guns clustered on the flat cement above the seating area.
Families sat together, ordering white Styrofoam trays heaped with steak and steaming tortillas. The atmosphere was jovial. "Sometimes it’s more crazy," a man in the crowd commented. "There are people with pistols."
"I’ve [always] had gallos at my house," said Jesus "Chuma" Maria Gallardo Chavaria, using the Spanish word for roosters. A 77-year-old ranch-hand who grew up nearby, Gallardo raises fighting roosters to sell to the gamblers. "I’ve watched them fight since I was little,” he said.
The roosters that fight in Petetlan are usually fed a diet of apples and ground meat. “After 18 months, then they’re ready for combat,” Chuma explained. “You have to wake up at five in the morning to make them run," he added. "It’s like a boxer, [you need to] give it conditioning.”
Under the wooden cage holding nine gleaming incandescent lightbulbs, the trainers worked to prepare the roosters for the next round. The entire ring had been swept clean.
Chuma leaned forward and asked the man in front of him, “do you like the yellow one?”
The two bird-handlers pulled out wooden boxes of short, sharp knives, and the referee, dressed in a black shirt, inspected each box.
The trainers separated, carrying their birds to opposite sides of the ring.
A middle-aged man in a white striped polo shirt held his bird tenderly in his arm, smoothing its feathers. Another man, the amarrador, stooped over the bird, gently massaging the rooster’s knee joint, and feet, pressing one of the knives under the rooster’s foot. The amarrador furiously wrapped string around the pointed metal blade, turning the rooster’s long pointed toe into a deadly weapon for the fight. Sometimes, the trainers slice open limes with the blades, covering them in acidic juice.
The ranchers who bring birds to the ring always look for experts to help prepare the roosters for battle. "A lot depends on the amarrador," said Celica Merchant, a 20-year-old woman with dark black hair, carefully applied makeup, skimpy jean shorts and a pink plaid shirt. She smiled, holding her tan Gucci purse on her lap, folding her cowboy boots under her plastic chair by the ring.
“Why do I like gallos?” she asked rhetorically, smirking. “Betting is exciting,” she said, “you don’t know which one is going to win."
“I like the yellow one,” Chuma said. “You have to look for the rooster with the most energy.”
The two trainers stood together in the center of the ring, gently placing their birds on the dirt. Bets finalized, drinks ordered, the conversations among the people in the plastic chairs around the ring hushed, and people in the crowd focused their attention on the trainers and birds. The bird handlers, kneeling, gripped the roosters’ tail feathers, letting them run in place, clawing into the dirt, trying to break free and fight.
Carefully, the trainers picked up their birds, holding them eye-to-eye, and then backed slowly to opposite sides of the ring. Again, they placed their birds on the ground. The roosters puffed their feathers out, preparing to fight.
At the referee’s signal, the handlers released the birds.
The two gallos charged, leaping and crashing together, falling to the ground, locked together, the knives on their feet digging into their underbellies. The referee intervened, and the trainers rushed forward, separating the birds, tenderly running their fingers through the soft feathers on the rooster’s stomachs, looking for injuries. The trainer in the polo shirt looked down at his hands. They were covered in blood.
The other trainer blew a mouthful of Mezcal, the traditional Mexican spirit, into the rooster’s face, readying him for the next round. The birds, set free in the ring, again raced toward each other, pausing tensely a foot apart, clawing at the ground, shuffling their feet. The rooster with the red feathers craned his neck forward aggressively causing his feathers to stand straight out like lion’s mane.
Jumping, he attacked, pecking furiously at the yellow rooster’s head, knocking his opponent to the ground. The red rooster then marched forward, stomping on his wounded opponent’s skull, the knife on his foot dug into the yellow rooster’s back.
The red rooster pecked furiously at the yellow rooster’s head, clamping his beak into the soft, wrinkled flesh around the rooster’s eye, jumping upwards, flapping his wings, tearing at the bird’s head, slamming his beak down. The crowd cheered in approval.
“This rooster is buenisimo!” the man in front of Chuma yelled.
“He’s going to kill him,” Chuma said regretfully, looking out over the barrier at the yellow rooster.
The pecking continued until the yellow bird lay lifeless.
“HE WOOOOOOOOOON!!!!!!!,” the announcer shouted.
“This time we lost,” Chuma said, shaking his head.
“Well, my hat says ‘I DON’T WIN, BUT THIS IS HOW I HAVE FUN,’” Chuma said. He pulled off his baseball-style hat. It was black, with a bright red rooster on the front, with the word “GALLO” embroidered in capital letters on the brim. “Oh! It’s not this hat, it’s a different one!” he said, laughing.
The bass from the nearby dance area of the fairground boomed. People stood up from their chairs, walking toward the bar. Fat men in cowboy hats at the high-rollers tables by the ringside signaled to the waitresses for fresh buckets of ice and cans of mineral water for their whiskey. At nearly 2,000 pesos per bottle, the whiskey costs as much as a ranch-hand might earn in a week.
“The narcos sometimes bet as much as 100,000 pesos on a fight,” one of the men by the ringside barrier said. Across the combat zone, a group of young men in tight, brand-new Ralph Lauren polo shirts with large ostentatious logos sat together, displaying the new generation of narco style. A hard-looking man in his late twenties stood with his arms folded, talking on a cell phone. A large, gaudy chain and medallion hung out of the collar of his pressed white, short-sleeve button-up shirt. The man in black sat in the last row, looking down over the younger men.
Earlier in the week, police had found the bodies of two young men wearing t-shirts and tennis shoes on a nearby highway. Both had been tortured. As the night progressed, gunmen in neighboring towns killed 15 people. At 4 a.m., gunmen killed a police officer inside his own home. Earlier in the afternoon hitmen chased down and shot another police office. A 15-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet.
Inside the ring, the trainer held up the red rooster. “This bird,” Chuma said, looking at the victorious gallo, “they’ll put honey and antibiotics in his wounds and stitch him up.”
“In a year he’ll be ready to fight again.”
By 5 a.m, the crowd started to thin. The police officers with machine guns filed out. Two female police officers with pistols stayed stationed at the door.
Ernesto Enriquez, a 27-year-old from Mexico City, walked out of the arena, down the steps past a late model luxury Chevrolet SUV, and a blue Z3 convertible BMW. A Mercedes sports car pulled to a stop in front of the building. The license plate said “Nuevo Leon,” one of the northern Mexican states that serve as a stronghold for the violent Zetas criminal organization. The car’s lights turned off, and a skinny man in his early twenties, dressed in brilliant white cowboy boots, slim-cut designer jeans and a pressed, button-down shirt stepped out, glowering at people leaving the ring.
"The atmosphere changed," Enriquez said. "It just got a lot more heavy."
A municipal police truck drove slowly by the entrance, carrying five commandos with large assault rifles.
“I’m surprised there weren’t any problems in there,” Enriquez said. "Sometimes it can get violent."