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Profile : Colombia's Latest Hero Is the Man Who Kills the Bulls : A matador named Cesar Rincon has helped restore a measure of dignity to a country brutalized by drug violence.


BOGOTA, Colombia — The duel flashed across the Atlantic, live from Spain. Before a hushed crowd at La Venta, Madrid's cathedral of bullfighting, stood Cesar Rincon, the upstart little matador from Colombia, his face twisted in fierce, unblinking concentration before a 1,100-pound enemy with horns.

To millions of television viewers here, the next moments were a collage of electrifying images:

Rincon, his back arched and feet planted, taunting the wounded bull with a red and yellow cape. Rincon leading the charging beast inches from his body with balletic passes and twirling veronicas. Rincon bumped but still afoot, his rose-colored suit stained by the animal's blood.

And finally, Rincon leaping to plunge a sword deep in the bull's neck. The doomed animal collapsing. King Juan Carlos of Spain applauding from the royal box amid a sea of white handkerchiefs. The matador clutching his trophies--the bull's ears--one in each raised fist.

"Colombiano! Colombiano!" chanted patrons at La Red, a Bogota restaurant, clinking wine glasses and tossing carnations at the TV screen.

"Now I can die in peace knowing that one of our matadors has triumphed in Spain," said Gonzalo Uribe, 63, the bartender at La Giralda social club down the street.

Bullfighting is an art that sickens as many as it thrills.

But in Colombia, a country brutalized by cruder forms of mayhem, this 25-year-old matador has become a national hero. His sudden rise to the world pinnacle of tauromaquia has restored a measure of national pride among violence-battered Colombians, including many who could care less for his profession.

"Colombia needs your triumphs," President Cesar Gaviria told Rincon in a telephone call right after the Madrid performance. "Little by little, you are changing the image of our country."

That afternoon, June 6, Rincon did something no bullfighter had ever done: He left the world's most prestigious ring for the third straight time on the shoulders of spectators. A matador earns a triumphal exit if judges award him both of the bull's ears for an afternoon's work--a feat rarer than a complete-game shutout in baseball.

Unheard of outside Colombia, Rincon started his streak May 21 by winning two ears at La Venta's Festival of San Isidro. Filling in for an injured matador, he astonished the bullfighting world by duplicating that achievement the next day.

The June 6 event was a matchup between Rincon and veteran Jose Ortega Cano, 37, Spain's top matador this season. Their mano a mano ended in a festive draw; each won two ears from his second bull, one from his third.

Rincon's triumphs, recorded on live TV and front pages at home, have given Colombians a respite from the curse of car bombings, assassinations and kidnapings that have killed thousands in the drug wars and guerrilla uprisings of recent years.

Some say his feats have eased a national stigma. "Colombian? Oh, yes, (they say,) a narcotics trafficker. Or, 'Oh yes, a motorcycle assassin,' " wrote Semana magazine columnist Antonio Caballero. "Cesar Rincon has worked a miracle. He is congratulated for being Colombian."

Other commentators have held up the matador's tenacity and finely honed technique as models for confronting Colombia's problems. "Rincon has shown that our youth can be brave and intelligent enough to use their brains to dominate the monster and check its killer instincts," Jorge Salgar wrote on the editorial page of El Espectador.

The bullfighter's modesty, fragile physique and rags-to-riches life story add to his appeal. Julio Cesar Rincon grew up in Fatima, a barrio of Bogota, and sold souvenirs at bullrings on weekends. He bought his first bicycle with his savings. It was stolen eight days later.

His father, a photographer and amateur matador who dreamed of professional glory for his son, bought Cesar a cape at age 11, let him quit school at 14 and fed him hormones to make him taller.

The kid needed every advantage. He stopped growing at 5-feet-5 3/4, which means that even today, at the top of the sport, he must look up at most of his adversaries' horns.

Gored several times in his early career, he ignored doctors' advice to quit. His growing success earned the attention of some Colombian bull breeders, who paid for his first trip to Spain in 1982, when he was 16.

Tragedy stuck on the eve of his debut there. His mother and 20-year-old sister, devout Roman Catholics, lit a shrine in the family's Bogota home and went to sleep praying for his life. The candles tipped over, igniting chemicals in the father's photo lab. The wooden house was destroyed. Both women died.

The family tragedy only doubled the teen-ager's determination. The next year, he was named Colombia's most promising young matador. But that promise was undermined by a poor season in Spain in 1986. Like a major leaguer sent down to the minors, he spent the next three seasons fighting 120 bulls in every ring in Colombia--some as far as four hours by road from the nearest hospital.

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