The End of Cockfighting in Puerto Rico?

December 20th is the day when cockfighting, a traditional sport in Puerto Rico, became illegal on the Island.The federal 2018 Farm Bill closed a loophole that had made it possible for Puerto Rico to hold cockfights even though such events have been illegal in all the States since 2008.

Two days before the deadline, Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vazquez signed a bill making cockfighting legal in Puerto Rico, in spite of the federal ban. She asks the federal government to give Puerto Rico five years to help the estimated 20,000 whose livelihoods rely on the sport to find other jobs. “They don’t have work,” she was quoted as saying by the New York Times. “They don’t have a livelihood. They can’t pay their bills or sustain their children.”

Vazquez also said that the sport brought $9,000,000 into the cash-strapped territory’s government budget.

The federal law

The 2018 Farm Bill removed “except where it is legal” from the regulation forbidding animal fighting. The new phrasing is “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly sponsor or exhibit an animal in an animal fighting venture.”

A number of other aspects of cockfighting were already illegal in Puerto Rico in 2008: buying, owning, and transporting gamecocks; selling, buying, delivering, or transporting knives for cockfighting; and attending animal fights. The federal government took the position that cockfighting was essentially already illegal in Puerto Rico before the Farm Bill.

The new wording removes all ambiguity from the law. Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, spoke out on the economic effects of closing down this sport. She also expressed concern that cockfighting might just go underground. In that case, the sport would be unregulated, and therefore perhaps more dangerous or harmful for the birds involved. It would also mean that no money would go to the government from cockfights.

A number of other aspects of cockfighting were already illegal in Puerto Rico in 2008: buying, owning, and transporting gamecocks; selling, buying, delivering, or transporting knives for cockfighting; and attending animal fights. The federal government took the position that cockfighting was essentially already illegal in Puerto Rico before the Farm Bill.

The local law

The new local law specifies that animals cannot be imported or exported to participate in fights. The governor considers this an important point, and says it means that she is not defying federal law.

The bill’s coauthor, Rep. Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló, took a different position. “We are certainly challenging a federal law,” he said. “We know what that implies,”

The bill claims that cockfighting brings in $18 million annually, counting both direct and indirect benefits, and employs around 27,000 people,

CNN quotes Wayne Pacelle, founder of Animal Wellness Action as saying that the local law “does not have any legal effect.” Pacelle claims that the bill is “widely exaggerating the economic value,”

Which law will win?

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the right and the responsibility to make all necessary rules and regulations for all U.S. territories. Puerto Rico has delegated powers to make local laws with the approval of Congress, but has no sovereignty.

This means that Puerto Rico cannot make a law for itself which contradicts federal law. Governor Vazquez has already said that “the courts will decide.”

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