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Bullfighting may soon be banned in Mexico City. But is the sport already dying?

Mexico City is the closest it's ever been to banning bullfights, and while the sport has become a hot-button issue in an increasingly polarized country, opponents say the sport is already going the way of the buffalo.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — They may have been greatly outnumbered by spectators pouring into the Plaza de Toros México, the world’s largest bullfighting arena, on Sunday, but supporters of a proposed ban on the sport were confident that they wouldn’t need to protest much longer. 

“This sport is already dying on its own,” said Manuel León de Judá, who organized the protest at the last bullfight of the season, possibly the last in the city’s history. 

The animal welfare committee in the Mexico City Congress approved a bill this month that would modify the capital’s animal protection legislation to include bullfighting as a prohibited treatment of animals. The sport is currently grandfathered in as an exception to the law. 

“This arena only fills up on special days like today, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but on other dates, it’s completely empty,” said León de Judá.

The figures for La Guadalupana, the last bullfight of the season, may support that claim. Plaza officials put the number of attendees at just over 20,000, a little less than half of the arena’s maximum capacity of around 42,000. Still, supporters say the centuries-old tradition is alive and well in Mexico. 

Spectators watch the opening ceremony at what may be the last bullfight held in Mexico City. Arena officials said the stadium was just under half-full for the event. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“Bullfighting is deeply rooted in all of the civic, religious, and holiday season festivities in both the cities and towns of Mexico,” said Manuel Sescosse, who sits on the executive board of the Mexican Bullfighting Association

He cited the sport’s economic value to society as a reason it should not be banned: 7 billion pesos of annual revenue generated; 18,000 direct and 80,000 indirect jobs created; and a boost of 800 million pesos in taxes paid each year. 

Much is also made of the sport’s importance to secondary businesses that benefit from it, such as taco and beer vendors and sellers of bullfighting-themed memorabilia outside the arena before events. But bullfights do not make up the entirety of such businesses.

“Thanks be to God that a product like food will sell out just about anywhere in the city,” one very busy mobile taco vendor said before the bullfight. “If I can’t sell tacos here during bullfights, I’ll go somewhere else and people will eat them there.”

Sescosse also praised — perhaps a bit too glowingly — bullfighting’s artistic value. “No other activity, with the exception of Christianity, has motivated more artists — in sculpting, painting, film, poetry, for example — than bullfighting,” he said. “It has a huge inspirational value, not just during the bullfight, but afterwards, as well.”

While the extent of the sport’s subjective value lies squarely in the eye of the beholder, opponents decry such claims of artistry as a highfalutin façade for finding entertainment in what is objectively the brutal and bloody killing of a living thing. León de Judá and the other vegan protesters outside the event said — perhaps a bit too dramatically — that enjoying a bullfight belies a deeper emotional instability.

“Every serial killer begins by torturing animals. It’s been proven that the psychological profile of someone who watches the killing of a bull for entertainment is the same as that of a murderer,” said León de Judá. 

Fans cheer as horses drag the lifeless body of a bull from the ring at Mexico City's Plaza de Toros during what may be the last bullfight in Mexico City history. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Such extremes of opinion ultimately reveal how bullfighting — known colloquially as la fiesta brava — has become a heated topic of debate in an increasingly polarized Mexico. Supporters feel like opposition to the tradition they love is merely a trending cause imported from outside the country.

“Sometimes political decisions aren’t well informed. It depends on the wave of the moment. Movements like Animal Heroes and these kinds of organizations are sexy now, because everybody thinks that the animals are important,” said Sescosse, who added that his organization supports laws that protect animals like cats, dogs and other pets, but not any that would restrict the treatment that bulls receive in the ring. 

Not everyone, however, is as polarized as Sescosse and León de Judá. One attendee of Sunday’s bullfight who preferred to not give his name said he respects those who have differing opinions on the topic. For others, the issue doesn’t have to be so black and white.

“I think there should be alternatives,” said Ignacio Flores, a Mexico City resident enjoying swigs from a wineskin with two friends before the bullfight. “Maybe they could do the bullfights without killing the animal and in that way avoid losing all the years of tradition.”

Flores called the protesters shouting for change “frustrated voices” who don’t recognize the good that bullfighting does for society. “We can see that the people here come from all classes of society. It can’t be true that they all have psychological profiles of murderers.”

Protesters did not view Flores’ proposal as true middle ground since it still includes physical harm to the animals. They remain steadfast in their hope that the sport would someday come to an end.

Whether that end comes through legislation or through culture is still to be determined. After the intervention of the Mexican Bullfighting Association, the congressional vote was pushed back to the new year.

León de Judá believes the winds of change to be blowing in his direction: “The fiesta brava is dying out.”

Courthouse News correspondent Cody Copeland is based in Mexico City.

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