The Miami Herald
Mon, Apr. 11, 2005

Bullfights blend bravado, blood

Set in makeshift corrals, the corralejas are part Pamplona running of the bulls and part Roman Coliseum spectacle, but nothing like traditional Spanish bullfights.


TIERRA ALTA, Colombia - It was getting close to five in the afternoon when a 700-pound bull gored its first victim, a 24-year-old named Jorge Luis Arieta. The horn caught him in the stomach and lifted him into the air before he tumbled onto the dusty arena.

The crowd gasped and rose to its feet, as the beige bull kicked at Arieta's limp body. Some audience members smiled, others squinted. But all felt it: After two hours, the often drunken and bloody feast known as a corraleja had really begun.

Set in makeshift corrals, from which the annual spring celebrations draw their name, the corralejas are part Pamplona-styled running of the bulls, part Roman Coliseum spectacle -- but nothing like the traditional Spanish-style bullfights held in the big cities. For some, it is a chance to show their mettle and skill, and earn a little money from sponsors who display their names on bullfighters' capes.

For others, it is an opportunity to watch young men get mangled right before their eyes.

Similar festivals are held in Ecuador, Venezuela and Mexico. But perhaps no place is more appropriate than Colombia, where four decades of bloody civil war have generated a type of bravado immortalized in videos with titles like Suicidas en Corralejas VIII.

The fighting bulls are usually let into the corral one at a time through a wooden corridor, and stay in the stand-surrounded ring for only about 10 minutes.


Hundreds of teenage boys and young men keep to the edges of the ring, so they can taunt and run near the gargantuan, salivating beasts -- and hop the fence if they get too close. Toward the center of the ring, amateur bullfighters carry multicolored capes in hopes of making passes like real toreros.

Men on horseback rush in every once in a while to jab the bulls with blunt wooden lances, but the bulls usually live to fight another day.

The owner of the day's bulls, Jaime Martínez, said he was paid $6,000 to bring 30 of his animals. He denied he had trained them to kill, although some of the fans believe the owners train their animals by having them tear apart practice dummies and sharpen their horns just before sending them into the ring.

The most brazen of the amateur bullfighters await the bulls' rushes with the calm of a seasoned Spanish bullfighter. The rookies often toss their capes in the air and run.

''Sometimes I get scared, but you have to go in there anyway,'' said Artenio Ruiz, 28, a former bullfighter who now performs the ''leap of death,'' in which he launches himself headfirst over a charging bull. Ruiz has 19 scars across his body, including several on his face.

Some of the fighters, like Ruiz, go from corraleja to corraleja, earning as much as $250 for each of the five-day festivals -- all in towns along Colombia's northern coast like Tierra Alta, 250 miles northwest of Bogota.

Others end the season early. Statistics are hard to come by, but local journalists say that during the 65 or so corralejas each year, about 10 people die on average and dozens more are injured.


For their part, the fans spend much of their time provoking the men in the ring to boldness by tossing them half-pints of rum. As the day goes on, more people are hurt.

''When there are dead and injured, that means the party is good,'' said Olegario Sánchez, a grocery store clerk who brought his 7-month-old daughter because he couldn't find a baby sitter.

''It's like there's one person and a million animals,'' he added. ``The person is the bull, and the animals are the people.''

Indeed, Jorge Luis Arieta was just the first to feel the rip of a bull's horn. A few minutes later, one man slipped and was run over by a bull. Soon after, another bull surprised a young man from behind and lifted him several feet into the air before driving its horn into his belly.

''Now this is getting good,'' said one fan in the stands as the other amateurs pulled the motionless victim under the fence and carried him to the waiting ambulance.

Some fans lamented the changes in Colombia's tradition of corralejas, more than 100 years old, toward blood and business: a traditional dance, for instance, has been replaced with corporate-sponsored tents and dueling speaker systems blasting music at full volume.


''There's no applause anymore. It's just screams,'' lamented Hector Zuluaga, the carpenter who keeps the rickety ring in one piece.

Yet most fans defend corralejas with great pride.

''This is our culture, our people,'' said Liney Martínez, a woman attending the event with her three daughters. ``The people come to have fun, not see people get killed.''

But it was a different story inside the ring. While no one died at the Tierra Alta feast that day, five people were severely injured and several others trampled.

And the danger was clearly a factor in the feast. After the bull gored him in the stomach, Arieta walked around the stands asking for donations.

''I was three centimeters from dying,'' he proudly boasted to the audience, a few paper bills in hand and blood oozing down his belly.