Bogota = With his tight trousers and boots, Luis Miguel Castrillon is dressed to kill as he prances, feints and pirouettes around a charging bull. The crowd applauds, but for animal rights campaigners in Colombia, the bullfighter is a cruel killer.
Applause swelled around Bogota's arena for the past month as Castrillon and other matadors taunted and dispatched bulls during the city's annual bullfighting festival.
But animal rights activists, whose campaign is taking hold in a traditional bullfighting stronghold, point to the sparse attendances in the arena -- well short of the 10,000 clamoring aficionados that once filled it for the month-long festival.
Castrillon is left feeling like a frustrated and misunderstood artist.
"You put your life on the line against the bull -- the animal can die and so can I -- so that in the end, society sees me as a murderer," lamented the 25-year old.
Increasingly, Castrillon is protected outside the arena for what he does inside it, as bullfighting's popularity wanes and campaigners grow bolder.
Two thousand police officers were on hand to protect the festival, more than is usually mobilized for a high-risk football match.
Bogota's city hall justified the extra security by pointing to violent demonstrations that greeted the return of the festival to Bogota last year after a four-year absence, when it was banned by a leftist mayor.
The festival has been held in Bogota's Santamaria bullring since 1931. But now it's under so much criticism that there are increasing concerns among aficionados that bullfighting could be banned altogether.
- 'Dying out' -
As a backdrop to the blood and dust of Bogota's arena, debate on a ban has been winding its way through the courts and the Congress.
This month judges decided that Congress must legislate on bullfighting's fate by next year, either banning it altogether or extending a current exemption from Colombia's animal cruelty laws.
The constitutional court ruled in 2015 that bullfighting was part of Colombia's cultural heritage. But judges have since argued that the practice violates the country's laws against mistreatment of animals.
It's a move that concerns Castrillon.
"After leaving my family at the age of 14 to become a bullfighter, finding myself without bulls would not only be the end of a career, but a life," he said.
Colombia is one of only eight countries in the world where bullfights are still held, along with Ecuador, Spain, France, Mexico, Peru, Portugal and Venezuela.
Even in these countries, laws are increasingly putting restrictions on the spectacle, including in Spain, where the Constitutional Court overturned a ban on bullfighting imposed by the region of Catalonia.
Andrea Padilla, spokeswoman for rights group AnimaNaturalis, said reopening the Santamaria Arena would not save bullfighting in Colombia.
"It is a dying practice. There is a generation that no longer goes to bullfights," Padilla said.
- 'Art of truth' -
Supporters, like 55-year old breeder Bernardo Caicedo, insist bullfighting is "an art of truth, a life and death struggle between the bullfighter and the bull."
In his ranch near Bogota, he says the "toro bravo" lives like a king until the age of five, when it is beast enough for the arena.
If it fights valiantly and is spared, it will be put out to stud for up to 12 years.
A ban would mean "the fighting bull would disappear, because it serves no other purpose," said Caicedo.
But animal advocates consider that a "perverse" argument, according to Padilla. "It's about keeping a breed just to go and massacre it in a public spectacle."
For now, campaigners are putting their trust in bullfighting finally being put to the sword during the upcoming election period.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos which leaves office in August, and presidential candidates from left or center, are all in favor of a prohibition.//AFP