SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Each man clutched a wriggling knapsack and stood in line, anxious to have every gamecock weighed and outfitted with spurs for a match at one of Puerto Rico's largest cockfighting clubs.
Within minutes, the men repeatedly called out the weights of their feathered fighters in a scene reminiscent of a Wall Street trading floor as they sought a suitable opponent of the same heft.
Then the action started. "Kill him! Kill him!!" one man urged his gamecock, which was throwing up blood as more than two dozen men gathered around a small ring at the government-sponsored club. The bird eventually won the fight and stood atop its dead rival, still pecking at it.
It's a scene many might consider unsavory, but it unfolded on a recent afternoon in an arena paid for with U.S. tax dollars, on an island territory where cockfighting is a legal and popular activity.
In fact, the territory's government is battling to keep the blood sport thriving, as many matches go underground to avoid fees and admission charges levied by official clubs. Although long in place, those costs have since become overly burdensome for some as the island endures a fifth year of economic crisis.
The business once generated $100 million a year in revenue for government-owned clubs across the U.S. territory, among the few places in the world where such fights remain legal. Recent figures are unavailable, but many say revenue at such clubs has plummeted.
"This year has been a death blow," said Angel Ortiz, longtime owner of Las Palmas cockfighting club in Bayamon. "All the cockfighting clubs in Puerto Rico are empty."
The territory's Sports and Recreation Department operates Ortiz's club and others that together have grossed about $30 million a year in bets alone. It's an industry that employs about 100,000 people and draws an estimated 1 million spectators a year, but that number has been dropping, said Carlos Lopez, president of Puerto Rico's cockfighting commission, which oversees the clubs.
The Spanish introduced cockfighting to Puerto Rico in the 16th century, and the sport was officially recognized for the first time in April 1770. The practice was banned after the U.S. invaded the island in 1898, and it wasn't until August 1933 that it won official status and became known as the "gentleman's sport" because of its honor-based betting system in which men yell bets at each other and later pay them.
Nowhere else is cockfighting allowed on U.S. territory, although many matches still take place in secret. Terry Mills, who investigates blood sports for the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the group opposes all cockfights regardless of whether they are held in legal or illegal venues.
During a fight, gamecocks repeatedly peck at each other with their sharp beaks, raising and kicking their legs fitted with plastic spurs that can cut deeply. A winner is declared if one of the animals dies, runs away or falls and fails to get up within one minute.
"Gamecocks are subjected to horrific abuse," Mills said. "We oppose fighting any animal for entertainment or profit."
But in October 2010, Puerto Rico legislators voted for a widely-lauded resolution to protect cockfights, stating they're an integral part of the island's folklore and patrimony. Subsequent legislation to crack down on illegal fights have received a lukewarm response.
"They can propose whatever measures they want, but no one will put a stop to this," said Samuel Hernandez, a 29-year-old gamecock breeder, who has attended clandestine fights and says he understands their attraction.
Puerto Rican cock-fighting has long been considered a social equalizer, with everyone from farmhands to business executives sitting elbow-to-elbow at fights. It's accessible to all, from those who can afford only one scraggly gamecock to reggaeton singers who buy gamecocks at $3,000 a pop.
Ortiz's club is among Puerto Rico's largest, but on a recent Friday the cries of about 25 men urging their gamecocks to kill each other reverberated across a half-empty venue that once was filled beyond capacity.
"The number of clandestine fights is proliferating," Lopez said. "It's so much easier in a shrinking economy to get 20 or 30 people together and fight the gamecocks on a farm or in the back of a business."
Puerto Rico currently has 86 government-regulated cockfighting clubs, down from 107 in recent years, according to Rep. Angel Rodriguez Miranda, who recently submitted a bill to strengthen penalties against those organizing or participating in clandestine fights.
Rodriguez withdrew the bill after the Senate rejected it earlier this month.
Legislators and police have long hesitated to crack down on clandestine fights and get involved in what many consider a cultural bastion.
Senator Antonio Fas Alzamora, who voted against the proposed bill, said he opposes clandestine fights but doesn't believe penalties would deter anyone.
"I chose to leave things as they are because I'd be changing what has been a tradition, a cockfighting culture that I respect," he said.
Those accused of organizing or participating in clandestine fights face up to $5,000 in fines or up to six months in jail, but the law is rarely enforced, Lopez said. Raids seldom lead to convictions because of technicalities.
Ortiz, the club owner, said the government needed to crack down on clandestine fights and said owners will take their concerns to the island's cockfighting commission in the coming weeks. He dismissed suggestions by some legislators that illegal fights don't exist or are difficult to find.
"They know where the fights are," Ortiz said. "Everyone knows where they are ... They need to put their pants on and draft a law."
Hernandez, the gamecock breeder, said that many in the business are already overwhelmed by the cost of breeding, feeding and training a gamecock and are reluctant to pay inscription and other fees at government-sponsored clubs. "Everything has gone up," he said.
No fees are paid at underground fights, and bets can be much lower than the usual $50 minimum and $100 average placed at clubs, which also charge a fluctuating parking fee, a $5 inscription fee and $5 for spurs that have to be bought there.
Carlos "Junior" Aponte, a former president of the cockfighting commission, said that limiting the sale of spurs to state-sponsored clubs would help end the underground fights. "Without spurs, there is no winner," he said. "It's like taking away their ball and bat."
Hernandez estimates that he spends roughly $300 a year for each of his 40 gamecocks, which he trains every Saturday and feeds a diet that includes honey, papaya and chickpeas. He also shaves the bottom half of their bodies and tans them in the sun as is customary to make them more attractive.
Hernandez said no one gets rich by fighting the birds; they do it out of passion for the sport.
"Anyone who tells you that he is a gamecock breeder and has money," he said, "with all due respect, you tell him he's a liar."