The legless horsemen

Eight days of uninterrupted drinking, five fatalities, fifty riders and thousands of rowdy spectators. Welcome to Guatemala's Todos Santos - a race that makes Pamplona's bull run look like a walk in the park. By Suzy Madigan
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The Independent US

Fifty breathless riders pull up at the end of the track after the gallop. A battalion of attendants run up with bottles of beer and rum, spraying them with booze like frantic boxing trainers before scattering as the pack speeds back down the short course, kicking up mud, to be similarly refreshed at the other end. In a rolling spectacular of colour, the horsemen thunder back and forth in their regal costumes, plumed hats cutting through the air as they yell and whoop. One competitor, miraculously keeping his balance, holds the reins in one hand and grasps a live cockerel in the other. With a flourish, he breaks the bird's neck in mid-gallop, to appreciative cheers from the onlookers.

Four hours into the race - and that's only half-way - the alcoholic pit-stops are testing the equestrians' balance. The families and supporters cramming the grassy banks around the course shout encouragement. The jockeys shoot off once more, but in the centre of the throng, almost in slow motion, a man slips from his saddle, slides down his horse's flank and drops to the ground. Immediately, he is trampled by the horses behind, spinning under their hooves and bouncing across the track like a pinball.

He lies motionless, a lifeless bundle, his ornate costume ripped and filthy. Race attendants swarm over to him, and he's carried away by friends to be tended on the floor of the shed that serves as the town's pharmacy. In the street outside, a throng of relatives gather, frantic for news. A scared-looking man appears in the doorway and a chilling wail goes up from the crowd as the rider is pronounced dead.

The annual horse-race in the town of Todos Santos (All Saints) in Guatemala is the exuberant finale of a week-long Mayan fiesta that makes Pamplona's running of the bulls look like a PTA meeting in Berkshire. It is a celebration of indigenous culture by townsfolk who are fiercely proud of their race and their heritage. Their pride is worn large, displayed most powerfully in the town costume of red and white striped trousers, purple embroidered shirt jackets and hats resembling pith helmets made of straw.

It's this pride that underlies the origins of the Todos Santos horse race. During the mid-16th-century Spanish occupation, a local drunk stole a conquistador's horse and, emboldened by alcoholic confidence, rode it around the town for hours before anyone could catch him. Every year at the end of October, on the eve of the Day of the Dead (when Guatemalans remember their dead relatives) the men of Todos Santos celebrate this act of rebellion with an eight-hour horse-race. It's reminiscent of the Palio in Siena, Italy - except that here it is mandatory to take a drink at every turn. There's no winner: the aim is to remain in the saddle despite total inebriation. So it's hardly surprising that the event's health and safety record is not unblemished. In fact, when a competitor dies, it is said to portend a successful harvest. There are on average two fatalities every year.

About 50 Todos Santos riders are chosen each year to represent teams of friends and relatives. According to the locals, riders are selected less for their equestrian skills than for their ability to throw a good party. The role of the support team is to ensure the rider's glass and their own remain full. Training for this bacchanalian trial begins on the Monday, and the last orders are rung at the end of the Day of the Dead celebrations on the Sunday.

Seen by some as an excuse to indulge in - and to excuse - rampant alcoholism in this town of just 3,000, with an event that frequently descends into violence, the race is also a statement of identity by an indigenous Guatemalan community which still feels discriminated against by the ruling élite. Indeed, some men will bankrupt themselves and their families for the honour of hiring a racehorse.

A legacy of bitterness and bloodshed has hung over this region ever since the end of the 36-year civil war in 1996, in which about 200,000 civilians died. With the political wounds far from healed, an uneasy peace prevails between the far-right military dictatorships and the left-wing guerrillas who once faced each other as enemies.

Indeed, the hostile mountainous landscape around Todos Santos, which sits in a valley at a height of more than 2,500m, offers no protection from politics. Above the town, looking out over seemingly endless valleys and peaks, the rough wooden shacks of peasant villages are daubed with propaganda slogans by different political parties. On the barren, grassy plains, fragments of clay pots lie strewn across the ground like a thin snowfall, although no buildings can be seen. These are the sites of razed villages whose houses and inhabitants were wiped out by government forces during the war under the scorched-earth policies of 1980s dictators.

Heronimo, a softly spoken, avuncular man, lives in a farmhouse near one such plain. He used to be a civil patroller. Beneath cold, clear skies up on El Torre, the highest non-volcanic point in Central America, he tells of the day the army came to his village and informed the men that they were to become patrollers. To clarify the terms of employment, the soldiers killed half of the dozen men and women who had been too scared to open their doors. The Todos Santos festival offers people such as Heronimo a chance to drink away the ghosts of the past, even if temporarily.

It's the day before the horse race, and the wind carries tantalising hints of a party in full swing: a few bars of a song played on a huge, xylophone-like marimba, laughter and shouting. Outside a house on the outskirts of town, about 40 revellers party on the path. A welcoming roar goes up as strangers approach, and the hosts thrust lager, rum, cigarettes and anything else they can offer into cold, grateful hands.

Communicating through the universal language of hearty slaps on the back, everyone dances in the open air of the valley as rusty evening clouds drift across the peaks above. As evening falls, the hike into town is enlivened by incidents of tipsy bonhomie. The atmosphere in Todos Santos seems tense, however: there's a manic, almost hysterical air, as though the celebrations are set to spin out of control. Before midnight, one man has been stabbed and another has drunk himself into oblivion. The death toll, we discover, is already at three, and it's only Friday. The horse race is to start at 8am the next day.

In the early morning sun, at least 20 men already lie slumped at the side of the road, the victims of five days of bingeing. Other men, their smart costumes steadily deteriorating, stagger in the street in groups of three and four, arms round each other, crooning strangulated songs.

It's hard not to succumb to an unhealthy voyeurism as this whirligig of mayhem plays out. It's rather like watching a boisterous children's game - great fun, but you just know it's going to end in tears.

Down the hill at the racecourse, a 400-metre stretch of track, thousands of onlookers are jostling to get a place. The race starts, and the riders storm up and down with manic enthusiasm, swigging rum at each end like marathon runners at a water station. They cling on with chap-covered thighs, waving both arms in the air and hooting. With little guidance from their riders, the horses veer perilously close to the barriers, already buckling under the weight of the crowd and threatening to collapse into the track. As the animals thunder past, those with trackside positions have to snap their heads back out of the way.

The most celebrated casualties of the week's events are those who fall from their horses. After the race, a procession of 200 or so townsfolk follow as the dead horseman is borne along in a blanket, his red and white striped legs dangling from one end, back up the lethal track to his house through the fields that will now, the riders believe, yield a good harvest. The line of mourners slowly passes through the maize crops, and the wind carries the low keening of bereaved women.

On Sunday, the party continues to reel on in the streets, but by now in a time-to-go-home kind of way. Overnight, two more fallen riders have died from their injuries, a bus attendant has been run over and killed by his own vehicle, and a returning local has strangled his wife, having found her pregnant by another man.

Motionless figures litter the hill down to the cemetery, while sobbing families, arms linked, weave their way home for lunch and more booze. Outside the graveyard, a dozen stalls sell lager, chips, candyfloss and funny hats. Costumed riders, still impressively upright, are dad-dancing to the music, spilling as much drink as actually goes down their throats. Inside, children hop between pastel-coloured graves bedecked with offerings and flowers, shooting at each other with toy pistols - the festival toy of choice. Older relatives take it in turns to wail over a headstone before returning, bottles in hand, to the dancing circle.

In town, events are adding to the graveyard population as a drunk driver kills a man asleep in the road. The driver, a local, is sitting handcuffed in a pick-up truck, flanked by two soldiers: the dead body, partially wrapped in black plastic sheeting, is slung alongside him. The deceased's family, all of whom are visitors to Todos Santos, are demanding that the driver be taken to Huehuetenango, the nearest large town, to be tried, but a crowd of about a hundred angry villagers surrounds the pick-up and the family to prevent the prisoner being taken off to what they believe will not be a fair trial.

Lynchings are not unknown in Todos Santos, and tempers are fraying dangerously. Suddenly, the crowd surges forward. A shaven-headed army captain raises a baton at the frontline and draws a canister of tear gas. The mob backs off. The mayor, who had been hiding in the town hall two doors away, is dragged out of his rooms to resolve the issue. A coffin is passed like a crowd-surfer at a rock concert up to the pick-up, just before an undertaker arrives to measure the body before sending the coffin back the same way, to be replaced by one that will fit.

Finally, the driver is remanded in the local prison until he can pay compensation of $6,000 (about £3,300) to the dead man's family. With the wage of a farm worker averaging one American dollar a day, he is unlikely to leave soon. In the end, the weeklong catharsis claims eight lives - three murders and five accidents. The men of Todos Santos return to the fields. There is much work to do - and it promises to be a bumper harvest this year.

SADDLE UP FOR THE DAY OF THE DEAD

The Todos Santos horse race is part of a 10-day festival which starts on 22 October and incorporates both All Saints Day (1 November) and The Day of the Dead (2 November).

Competitors in the All Saints Day race drink almost solidly for eight days before participating, and have to abstain from sex.

Fifty riders start the race at 8 in the morning. The contest finishes when only one man remains on his horse.

The racecourse track is 400 metres long, and the winner rides the course as many as 20 times. At the end of each lap, riders are given tankards of rum to drink before recommencing, as well as live chickens, with which they thrash their horses.

Eight people were killed at the 2003 festival. Two were murdered, one drank himself to death, one was run over by a bus - and four died from injuries sustained falling from their horses.

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