In Rural Colombia, At The Gory Intersection Of Social Media And Bullfighting

Images are spreading of extreme cruelty to animals at the corralejas, a version of bullfighting in remote areas of Colombia. Social media can be both enemy and friend for animal rights activists.

Corraleja in Sincelejo, Colombia.
Corraleja in Sincelejo, Colombia.
Angélica María Cuevas


BOGOTA — How can something be disgusting, unacceptable and damnable to some people, and natural if not entertaining to others?

If the digital revolution has given us one thing, it is the ability to see certain realities we could not before. We are now able to witness the daily routine of astronauts in the International Space Station, but also questionable rituals such as female circumcision, still practiced among some ethnic groups of the African and American continents.

And now, closer to home here in Colombia, the corralejas bullfighting festivals in the northern part of the country, which lead to scenes that many of us would consider atrocious.

First there was the bull at the Turbaco corraleja, in the Bolívar department, a couple of days ago: After being stabbed between in the neck, the animal was stoned and beaten to death by a group of men. Then there was the video of the horse gored in Buenavista, then dismembered alive by a male mob. The horse was then cut into pieces, and likely barbecued later on.

In neither of those "incidents" do we see any trace of indignation among witnesses. The men who jumped on the bull and those who cut the horse considered this a natural thing, as did their cheering audience.

So, why is one person's chilling spectacle another's festive moment?

For Aura Angélica Hernández, a social and cultural anthropologist teaching at the University of Antioquia, there are cultural contexts for the corralejas rooted in the communities that celebrate them — though they may seem incomprehensible to people in cities. "The bullfighting game that began in colonial times has been kept alive in isolated rural regions, with some changes, and is now a massive commercial spectacle that attracts all social classes. The poor pay a few pesos and enter the arena, at the risk of facing the animal, and the rich watch from the stands, throwing down sweets and even money," she says.

For the people of this region, participating in a corraleja is a heroic act: If the bull gores you, you show off your wounds. People from the countryside really look forward to this celebration. "All this is part of a spectacle bathed in liquor and crowd euphoria," Hernández notes. "The boss — the person who pays for the bull and horse — is upstairs, the indigenous fighters are below. Bringing the animal down can represent a triumph of the oppressed over the powerful."

The cultural distance between city and rural contexts can make this shocking for city dwellers. Those who have grown in the countryside, explains Hernández, are used to killing cattle and providing food for themselves — yet, of course, many are appalled by animal torture. People from rural areas are used to seeing a cow's throat being slit, and though they have a different relationship with horses, they still see the animal in terms of its utility, including after it is killed.

Paolo Vignolo, a historian and lecturer at the Colombian National University, has amply researched Colombia's festivities and carnivals. He says that such celebrations are particularly interesting because they reflect a group's or a community's social dynamics. In these you can see many symptoms of the unease that exists in a region. But the corralejas can also be seen as spaces wherein the local community can release tension that has been building up.

"The carnivals are characterized by waste, drunkenness and sexual excesses, as well as rituals where icons are burned and animals sacrificed," Vignolo says. "The big debate is whether or not the animal should die. In the case of the Barranquilla carnival and the Devil's Carnival in Riosucio, the expressions of death are symbolic, like burning the devil or mourning Joselito Carneval's death, but for many, the absence of animal blood in such celebrations is absurd."

Judge Enrique Gil Botero has become an authority for animal activists after forcing a research lab in the Amazonas department to shut down until it could prove it respected the rights of the monkeys it was using in tests.

Botero says Colombia needs to fundamentally change its interaction with animals.

"Just as we banned slavery or death matches in the Roman Colosseum, we should not force animals, who have highly developed nervous systems, into spectacles where people satisfy their basest needs and enjoy seeing the suffering and sacrifice of creatures who can sense pain, pleasure and loyalty," he says.

In Colombia, a debate on animal rights is emerging. But we are far from agreeing on whether or not these take precedence over our traditions.

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