MEDELLÍN, Colombia—On a scorching Saturday in February, hundreds of young men and women in Medellín stripped down to their swimsuit bottoms, slathered themselves in black and red paint, and sprawled out on the hot cement in Los Deseos Park in the north of the city. From my vantage point on the roof of a nearby building, the crowd of seminude protesters formed the shape of a bleeding bull—a vivid statement against the centuries-old culture of bullfighting in Colombia.
It wasn’t long ago that Colombia was among the world’s most important countries for bullfighting, due to the quality of its bulls and its large number of matadors. In his 1989 book Colombia: Tierra de Toros (“Colombia: Land of Bulls”), Alberto Lopera chronicled the maturation of the sport that Spanish conquistadors had introduced to South America in the 16th century, from its days as an unorganized brouhaha of bulls and booze in colonial plazas to a more traditional Spanish-style spectacle whose fans filled bullfighting rings across the country.
But in recent years, the popularity of what spectators call the fiesta brava has waned in Colombia, and an anti-bullfighting movement has grown. Bullfight fans and animal-rights activists have told me that large-scale bullfights are now only performed in four Colombian cities, and attendance is slipping. According to Luis Alfonso Garcia Carmona, the executive director of the Association for the Defense of Bullfighting (Asotauro) in Medellín, the quality of Colombian bulls and matadors has declined—and with them, Colombia’s stature among the seven or so countries in Europe and Latin America where Spanish-style bullfighting is still practiced.