‘Making criminals of good people’

Posted on Dec 20 2019

For Jay Sanchez and Ray Roberto, today’s ban on cockfighting is truly a sad day not only for the CNMI but also for all the U.S. territories that look at this bloodsport as part of their culture and tradition and passed on by generations of gamecock aficionados.

Both even strongly believe that criminalizing the centuries-old game is hypocritical in some ways, considering that the Commonwealth recently legalized cannabis use and the Legislature passed a casino law despite the local electorate repeatedly rejecting it in referendums.

“I think it’s unfair because people of the CNMI and our representative in U.S. Congress as well as non-voting delegates from the other U.S. territories all opposed it but they still passed the law,” said Roberto, alluding to the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 or the Farm Bill that made cockfighting in all U.S. jurisdictions, including in Guam and in the CNMI, illegal.

Unlike Guam and Puerto Rico, which already said they will be defying the federal ban on cockfighting, the administration of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and the CNMI Legislature have remained mum on the issue.

Sanchez even put up $100 just to entice lawmakers to come down to his cockfighting pit along As Lito in Chalan Kanoa and see for themselves what the islands and its people would be losing.

“I hope they [lawmakers] show up or even say something because they’re so silent. I hope I see them and they do something. You know, if this was the casino they’ll bend backwards but, I guess because this is not the casino, they’re so silent. I guess they don’t really care for something that has happened here for 400 years. They say it was introduced by the Spanish so if the Spanish were here in 1571, so since then,” said Roberto, who supplies the feeds to cockfighting breeders.

He said there’s actually some parallels between cockfighting and marijuana.

“I just read that Puerto Rico just passed a bill similar to our marijuana law where they legalized cockfighting again. There’s no difference really between cockfighting and marijuana. The feds say it’s illegal but the states [or territories] can pass marijuana bills that turn marijuana legal. There’s no difference. So, I guess they don’t care for something as old and historic as that. But the casino, which is only a couple of years, they’re already bending backwards for them because cockfighting doesn’t bring revenue for them. They don’t care,” he added.

After today when the cockfighting ban takes effect, Roberto said there might be some who would go underground.

“Just like speeding, there’s speed limits but people still go speeding. The seatbelt law requires everybody to wear their seatbelts but you see police officers still issuing tickets for those. I guess just because you passed something and made it illegal doesn’t mean it’s [going to] stop anything. I think people will continue to do what they’ve done the last 400 years,” he said.

Roberto also had some choice words for those who would take advantage of the offer of a $2,500 reward to anyone who reports an individual or set of individuals who violate the federal law.

“Whoever wants to get their $2,500 and be a snitch, I guess you can. It’s a free and democratic country, but remember that you do have to come and testify in court because whoever that defendant is and whoever you snitched on is entitled to confront their witnesses and whoever snitches must come forth and testify in court.”

The reward was offered by the U.S.-based Animal Wellness Foundation and Animal Wellness Action.

For Sanchez, the ban is a double whammy of sorts; he will not only lose a sport he loves but severely hurts his livelihood as well.

“Right now, we’re operating at a loss because…Super Typhoon Yutu came and just ripped this place apart. We had to rebuild. That cost an arm and a leg and already we paid the Saipan Mayor’s Office $40,000 for a license to operate.”

He said cockfighting has been a part of his life for the better part of the last 35 years. “I’ve met some of the best people I’ve come across in my livelihood through this activity. Some of the best lessons I learned in my livelihood I’ve learned through this—responsibility, respect, camaraderie, economics, everything!”

Sanchez intimated that the CNMI can defy the federal ban due to the Covenant it signed with the U.S.

“Do we need to defy the ban? We don’t! Why? Because it’s legal. Right now, we have the legal right to operate. …As stated by Saipan Local Law 9-8, Tinian Local Law 6-2, Rota Local Law 7-2. These laws make it legal for us to operate cockfighting in the CNMI. …The Covenant was written to protect all the laws we established and the rights of the citizens of the CNMI. …If the Covenant gives you that right, what are you afraid of?”

Feds will enforce law

Shawn Anderson, U.S. Attorney for the Districts of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, said in a statement that his agency will fully enforce the cockfighting ban.

“…With the enactment of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, Congress has effectively criminalized every aspect of the animal fighting industry nationwide. Beyond criminal enforcement of this new provision, our office may also seek civil forfeiture of any property involved in or facilitating such an offense. Courts may also order a defendant to make restitution payments for the costs of caring for seized animals.”

“Federal law enforcement resources are not sufficient to permit the prosecution of every alleged offense over which federal jurisdiction exists. Some may wonder whether this crime is worth our time. Others may believe it is past time to finally act. The public should know that our office will make every effort to pursue violations of this statute within the available resources of the Department of Justice,” his statement read.

Loss of income

Bogs Dayrit, who is responsible for tying the 3- to 4-inch blades on the legs of the gamecocks, said the ban is unfortunate.

He earns an extra $120 a week from the operations of the cockfighting pit, not only for “arming” the gamecocks but also tending to the wounded fowls after a fight.

With cockfighting now illegal, he fears that those who bet in the bloodsport will now go back to playing poker or try their luck in the casino.

Henry Hofschneider, the Saipan Mayor’s Office special assistant, admitted the federal prohibition will have a negative effect on their coffers.

“We will no longer have the opportunity to collect and receive the current sole license fee of $40,000 or any amount in license fee in the future. The fee we collect have been used to support the operation of the mayor’s office, e.g., equipment rental, purchase of supplies, safety gear for field operation employees, repair and maintenance of equipment, purchase of replacement parts for the office’s road maintenance equipment, etc.,” he said.

‘More than a pastime’

Former House speaker Ralph Demapan laments the death of cockfighting in the CNMI and the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, citing its role in the local culture and history. Saying it’s one of the few local practices “still passed down by our elders today.”

He said many of the islands’ local families pass on years of cockfighting secrets, traditions, and also superstition to the next generation, “so it’s more than just a pastime entertainment or sport.”

Demapan asserted that cockfighting is well regulated by the local government and respected not only by many of the indigenous people but also a large segment of the Filipino community.

“Unfortunately, such a ban will inevitably result in underground and illegal cockfighting activities,” he said.

By criminalizing cockfighting in the CNMI, the federal government will be making outlaws of law-abiding citizens, Sanchez said. He said it was only a few years ago that local lawmakers passed a law that made the exact opposite of marijuana users.

“I think this ban is going to make criminals of good people. Last year we passed the cannabis law and we made good people out of criminals… And now because of this ban, now you catch any of this people at a chicken fight, you catch them holding their gamecocks or flushing gamecocks together, the slightest thing…sometimes they get you by just ownership. You’re gonna make criminals out of them.”

Mark Rabago | Associate Editor
Mark Rabago is the Associate Editor of Saipan Tribune. Contact him at
Disclaimer: Comments are moderated. They will not appear immediately or even on the same day. Comments should be related to the topic. Off-topic comments would be deleted. Profanities are not allowed. Comments that are potentially libelous, inflammatory, or slanderous would be deleted.