The spectacle of bullfighting is back in the capital, sparking widespread protests. However, as Kieran Duffy explains, its revival maybe short lived as the government is already considering a nationwide ban.
On Sunday January 21, there were violent clashes between police and protesters as bullfighting returned to Bogotá. Over 10,000 spectators filed into the Plaza de Toros de Santamaria to watch the first tournament since the city’s ban on the practice was overturned. However, thousands more gathered outside to oppose the event. Amidst chants of ‘murderers’ and ‘torturers’, the protesters soon became involved in scuffles with attendees and the police. The resulting battle between the protesters and Colombia’s controversial riot police ESMAD left many injured and resulted in 18 arrests. The Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando Cristo has announced plans for a nationwide ban on bullfighting but his efforts won’t come fast enough for protesters, who have vowed to continue their demonstrations every Sunday.
Bullfighting has a long history in the Spanish-speaking world and Colombia is no exception. Ever since it was introduced to South America in the sixteenth century the practice has enjoyed a great deal of popularity. Indeed, Colombia was long regarded as one of the most important countries in bullfighting, providing some of the most highly-regarded bulls and matadors. But the spectacle has become increasingly controversial around the world, as animal-rights advocates have called for its abolition. The Panamanian government has banned bullfighting, while others have increasingly regulated the practice.
In Colombia attendances at bullfights have long been in decline and protests against the tournaments have become more common. In 2012 former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro banned the practice within the city. But he faced a huge backlash from those who watched and practiced bullfighting. Matadors threatened hunger strikes and fought the decision in court. With many rich and powerful backers, they won. In 2015 the constitutional court ruled 5-4 that bullfighting, despite seemingly violating the animal rights provisions of the constitution, was protected as it was a form of artistic expression. Enrique Peñalosa, Petro’s successor, said he had no choice but to accept the ruling.
Bullfighting advocates were of course overjoyed by its return to the capital. The arena has long been a gathering place for the Colombian elite, and influential figures such as former Investigator General Alejandro Ordoñez were among the crowd. Many travelled from other cities and even from neighboring countries. Rafael Oliart of El Centro Taurino de Lima came from Perú to witness the event. He said, “It was a triumph of culture and tradition. The drought of bullfights in Bogotá was very regrettable. We respect those who oppose but we demand the same respect towards us.”
The protesters gathered outside did not share his enthusiasm. Tensions rose as spectators began to enter the arena. Ángela Forero-Aponte, who attended the protest, spoke to The Bogotá Post about what she witnessed. She feels that the police handled the situation very badly and turned mostly peaceful march into violent affair. “Tear gas was thrown at a crowd of people of people for no reason. I saw protesters screaming in the taurinos’ ears and a taurino trying to punch a protester. Upon seeing this the police took the side of the taurino. I told them off by saying that saying that the job of the police is not to defend either party but to mediate in the situation.”
She went on to say that the police reaction was influenced by the exclusive nature of the event: “There was big support from the police for the powerful people who were attending the event. Police are supposed to defend and protect citizens, bullfighting goers and protesters alike, as well as the innocent ciclovia goers (many of them minors) who were passing along the septima. I also think it is very unfair and inaccurate that the protesters are portrayed as violent when the vast majority are not.”
Petro was in attendance at the march and Peñalosa later blamed him for inciting violence. The current mayor also claimed that he would prevent any further protests at the bullfighting arena. This dictatorial statement was later rescinded under a barrage of criticism. Nevertheless, there was an increased police presence at this Sunday’s event. While the government are working to prohibit or restrict bullfighting – a measure Peñalosa supports – this measure would not take effect until after the months of January and February, which are the months when the controversial activity is traditionally practiced. Therefore, we can expect plenty of clashes at the Plaza de Toros in weeks to come.
By Kieran Duffy