Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Illegal Cockfight bust close to the border nabs mostly Filipinos.

Fifty people, mostly Filipinos, were arrested Sunday, October 14, in a raid near the U.S.-Mexican border in San Diego (California). More than 5,000 hens and roosters were found in two locations being raised and trained for illegal cockfighting.

Authorities consider the sweep the biggest of its kind in U.S. history and believe they have shut down the largest fighting cock-breeding and training operations in the country. The raid was conducted after six months of police investigation and surveillance.

The seven-acre compound and a smaller facility nearby are located in Otay Mesa, rural community within southeast of the city of San Diego. The Otay Mesa Port of Entry is one of three border crossings in San Diego County.

Paul Levikow, spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, told Philippine News that the compounds are located a few miles from the border, where cockfighting and fighting cock-breeding are legal.

The ironic thing is, if the operations that we busted were a couple of miles farther south right by the Mexican border, these would have been totally legal,” Levikow said.

The 50 individuals, many of whom are retired or active U.S. military personnel, are facing misdemeanor charges, to include cockfighting and possession of cockfighting implements. Police are still looking for 50 additional suspects, majority of them are also presumed to be Filipinos.

Defendants face up to a year in jail for each charge and a $5,000 fine even as additional felony charges are possible for those found with a history of animal cruelty.
Levikow said a court date has been set for December.

Members of the composite raiding team of local and federal law enforcement agencies, which included animal welfare officers, were appalled with what they saw at the illegal facilities.

Thousands of birds were kept in cages without food and water, while dead ones littered the ground. Handwritten notices were found posted near the cages, on which was written a specific instruction: ‘Do not touch or feed; training in progress.’

In my 31 years with the society, this is the biggest … this is horrible,” Eric Sakach of the United States Humane Society said on San Diego television.
Agents also seized evidence that indicate the birds were being shipped to Hawaii and the Philippines.

According to Leviko, illegal cockfighting is not entirely unique to the city and county of San Diego. “But perhaps because cockfighting is a felony in Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon but is only a misdemeanor in California, we have noted a steady increase in the activity here,” he told PN.

The same seven-acre compound had already been raided in 2000, in which more than 2,500 birds were seized. It was not immediately clear if those arrested in the October 14 bust belonged to the same syndicate that operated on the property six years ago.

Leviko also said there was no actual cockfight going on when the raiding team arrived. Slashers – razor-sharp blades tied to the birds’ legs during fights – were among the cockfighting implements seized, however.

In all likelihood, cockfights where betting is involved are rarely held, if at all, in the training facility. Instead, the matches take place in the backyard of private residences often owned, again, by Filipinos.

Enrico Ruste, a former resident of San Diego for 12 years and a cockfighting aficionado in the Philippines, described to PN how cautious and careful the house owners were when hosting cockfights.

Cockfights would be held in a tent, garage, or any other enclosed space that is safe from air surveillance,” Ruste recalled.

He added that at any given time, there would only be a maximum 10 people to avoid attracting attention and to keep noise to the barest minimum.

“Everybody in the group knows each other,” he said. “Nobody just walks in with a ‘sasabungin’ (fighting cock) or a wad of bills. Everything is prearranged; you can’t come in if you’re not on the guest list.”
And the bets?

They could run to thousands,” Ruste replied. “I have seen people betting as much as $3,000 on good fighting cocks or those with a winning record in cockfighting circles.”

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