Inside the world of Mexican tiger fighting: a brutal indigenous rain ritual

In southern Mexico, residents fight keep a deadly, three-century-old indigenous ritual alive
In southern Mexico, residents fight keep a deadly, three-century-old indigenous ritual alive   -  Copyright  AFP

In southern Mexico, an extremely violent indigenous ritual, known as Atsatsilistli, takes place every year. 

Seeking to appease the Aztec rain god and end drought, men and women in tiger costumes whip each other mercilessly into submission. 

"They say it's a drop of blood for a drop of rain," Karina Vicente says as she prepares to take part in the annual tradition for the first time.

"I'm very excited but nervous," explained the 22-year-old psychology student in the town of Zitlala in Guerrero, one of Mexico's poorest and most violent states.

Fighting to keep the tradition alive

Two contestants in tiger costumes take part in. fight during the rain petition ritual in ZitlalaAFP

According to tradition, blood spilled during the ritual is an offering for the rain god Tlaloc.

The sound of each whiplash represents a clap of thunder, the yellow colour of the costumes a drought and the whip a tiger's tail.

Before the fight begins, the residents of Zitlala split into two groups and dance under the intense sun along steep streets, to the rhythm of banda, a genre of Mexican music.

First, the male contestants enter the battleground—the town's basketball court—to fight for about five minutes at a time, watched by crowds of spectators.

"Come on! Come on!" a burly, bare-chested man says, challenging his opponent.

Minutes later, he raises his arms in victory, blood starting to seep from the wounds inflicted by his rival.

Referees stand by, ready to separate the fighters if they break the rules.

The musicians of both sides play simultaneously, adding to the chaotic atmosphere.

Soon the air is filled with the aroma of mezcal, an alcoholic spirit made from agave fruit, that the contestants drink and use to wet their whips to make them more effective.

Changing attitudes

Pedro Pardo/AFP
A woman in tiger costume prepares for her ritual fight in front of a large crowd in ZitlalaPedro Pardo/AFP

In the past, the 300-year-old indigenous ceremony was only for men. But these days, women also want to help keep the tradition alive.

After the men fight it is the women's turn. They greet and hug each other before and after the fight, unlike the men.

Within minutes, Karina Vicente's opponent removes her mask in defeat after some well-aimed lashes.

"I felt good, proud!" Vicente declares, savouring her victory.

The ritual hopes to ensure that the rainy season begins punctually - a lifeline for a community that relies on corn and other crops, explains resident Cleofas Cojito.

She welcomes the participation of women in the tradition, which was once so brutal that some contestants even died, Cojito says.

"Now there's equality. There isn't so much machismo anymore," she adds.

Check out the video above for a look at Mexico's tiger fighting ritual

Video editor • Theo Farrant