Police in Hawaii have vowed to increase illegal gambling enforcement after one of the most fatal shootings in the state garnered attention to the dangers of cockfighting.
The shooting in downtown Honolulu killed a man and a woman and wounded three others. Two suspects, including a 16-year-old, have been charged with multiple murder counts. The 16-year-old suspect was processed with the charges as an adult.
According to authorities, investigating cockfights is difficult as they are highly organized events that occur on private property. Their illegal nature and the large amount of money wagered also means that they often have links to organized crime. In Hawaii, cockfights happen all the time, usually on large, remote properties, despite being illegal in the state since 1884.
Even if cockfights have been prohibited, they remain a part of life in the islands, especially among the state’s large population of Filipinos who have brought the practice from the Philippines. Many cockfighting enthusiasts claim the blood sport is part of local Hawaii culture.
Former Maui police chief Gary Yabuta, now executive director of the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area says, “People that are attendees are local, locally based, and have been doing it for generations. A saying among chicken fighters is, ‘It’s in my blood.'”
However, the fatal shooting has some saying enough is enough and that cultural claims should no longer be used to excuse the illegal fights that happen every weekend.
Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya, chair of the neighborhood board in the area of the shooting, stated, “People say, ‘I grew up with it. It’s a cultural thing. Papa had chickens … we went to chicken fights, that’s how we made our money. It’s not a cultural right. It’s illegal. Period.”
Yabuta, whose program helps local and federal law enforcement collaborate in the fight against illegal drugs, has shown concern about cockfighting as it’s wrapped up in organized crime and has links to drug trafficking.
“It’s something that is so huge and so popular in Hawaii that it really can’t be controlled by law enforcement,” he said, noting that fights often attract hundreds of people and make bets totaling more than 100,000 USD.
In the US, cockfighting has been illegal in all 50 states but it was only in 2019 when the sport was made illegal in US territories when a law signed by former president Donald Trump banning all animal fighting went into effect.
Numerous lawsuits have challenged the ban, arguing that cockfighting is a cultural practice, but they have seen little to no success. The U.S. Supreme Court turned down a challenge to federal law brought by individuals and organizations that argued Congress exceeded its power in applying the ban to Puerto Rico.
Some in Hawaii worry that violence linked to cockfighting will grow more in the state. Hawaii has largely escaped the scourge of gun violence seen elsewhere in the US.
Chris Marvin, a Hawaii resident with Everytown for Gun Safety, said these types of shootings will increase with the proliferation of guns in the islands. “We are going to start to replicate the trends that we’ve seen in the mainland,” Marvin said. “And in the rest of the country, there is more than one mass shooting per day. We don’t hear about all of them.”