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Perils of Road Keep Rodeo Fans Away

Colombia's war has meant low attendance at coleo events as people opt to stay home rather than risk kidnappings by rebels.


VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia — Ricardo Villalba has big plans for the coleo, the traditional Colombian rodeo where cowboys compete to see how many times they can flip a steer.

Villalba envisions a day when the event spreads across all of Colombia. He sees crowds thronging by the thousands to packed stadiums. He even imagines a world coleo championship.

But first, he has to overcome one problem: Colombians are increasingly frightened to leave their homes.

"The war touches everything," Villalba said ruefully as he gazed across the empty bleachers at a recent coleo here in this grimy military city hard by the Andes. "People are scared to come here."

There is perhaps no better proof of how Colombia's violence touches the everyday lives of its people than this Easter week, traditionally a time when tens of thousands of people take to the road for vacation.

Instead, authorities are expecting record travel lows this year as tourists stay home, terrified of becoming victims of so-called miracle fishing--roadblocks set up by leftist guerrillas to facilitate kidnappings.

In an effort to blunt those fears, the army and police have turned the roads into virtual armed corridors this week, with more than 100,000 uniformed personnel--65% of the country's standing forces--stationed on major thoroughfares.

But if the regional coleo championships here in Villavicencio are any indication, the government has a long way to go to convince residents that the streets are safe.

Palm Sunday marked the start of the first of a series of competitions to determine the national champion of coleo, an event long celebrated in the vast open plains of Colombia's eastern frontier. The event is practiced, with slight regional variations, in only a handful of Latin American countries, including Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil.

In the past, thousands of people flocked to coleos from throughout the far-flung reaches of the plains, a modern-day equivalent of America's Wild West.

But on this particular day, only about 200 people showed up for the coleo, which combines the violence--and cruelty--of a gladiator match and the horsemanship of a rodeo.

Take, for instance, the run by Edilberto Castro, one of the sport's top competitors.

Castro mounted his specially trained quarter horse at the start of the manga, a corridor about 15 yards wide and 330 yards long. Next to him, mounted on a smaller horse, was Castro's assistant, whip in hand.

The coleo began at the drop of a flag. Suddenly, an all-white steer appeared, sprinting out of the gate into the corridor. Castro's assistant galloped alongside, whipping the steer to greater and greater speeds.

About 100 yards into the chute, Castro had maneuvered into position. He reached out and grabbed the steer's tail with one gloved hand. Then, in one smooth motion, he swung far out of his saddle opposite the beast, pulling its tail toward him.

Suddenly, in a tumult of dust and horse and steer, the bovine went head over heels. One flip counts for 20 points. Two is worth 25. And the rare remolina--three complete rotations--brings the rider 30 points.

But this time, all Castro got was a sickening crack. The steer's rear leg had shattered. It struggled to get up as Castro rode past. The crowd groaned.

"It's broken, it's broken," the announcer cried. "What a pity." About four of the first 30 steers suffered similar fates, all of them hauled away by tow truck to a nearby slaughterhouse.

Coleo promoters hope to overcome whatever queasiness might accompany the sport by breeding bigger and stronger steers. But they also know that they face a problem persuading people to brave the long trips across the desolate frontier, where guerrillas control much of the region.

Nobody knows that better than Angel Zambrano, last year's national champion. Zambrano said he and his prized horse, Tres Letras, which means Three Letters, were kidnapped three years ago while returning from a coleo. Guerrillas held both for 20 days before releasing the pair, saying they had mistaken Zambrano for another man.

"They said it was a mistake," said Zambrano, 47. "These things happen."

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