PAMPLONA, Spain – The topics of sexual abuse and animal cruelty are dominating this year’s San Fermin festival in Pamplona, which kicks off Friday for nine days and eight nights of round-the-clock alcohol-soaked partying, traditional celebrations and dangerous bull runs.
It’s not a full-blown identity crisis yet, but the festival in northern Spain popularized by American novelist Ernest Hemingway and seen by critics as a macho proving ground with a violent streak is slowly adapting to the social awareness brought by a new generation.
Sexual assaults reported during the festival went from two in 2008 – the year a local woman was murdered after she refused to have sex with her killer – to 20 in 2016, when five men cornered an 18-year old, filmed themselves sexually attacking her and left after stealing her phone. The figures, from a study by the Public University of Navarra, rose to 22 last year amid growing public outrage.
“I don’t want my city to be known as a place for rampant sexual abuse or the torture of animals,” said Jana Uriz, 32, a local animal-rights activist among those demanding a “sexual-abuse free” festival.
Authorities have been able to identify suspects in nearly 95 percent of the cases in Pamplona, where the 2016 “Wolfpack case” – named after the WhatsApp group the perpetrators used to share their abuse videos – marked a tipping point that galvanized Spain’s own #MeToo movement.
Outrage fueled protests in the streets after a provincial court cleared the five men of rape charges and sentenced them to nine years behind bars on a lesser charge of sexual abuse. The government launched a revision of the punishments for sexual crimes, but when the men were released on bail last month pending a decision on their appeal, angry crowds again hit the streets.
Authorities in Pamplona responded by improving their handling of victims, stepping up police surveillance and training and launching 24-hour hotlines and a new mobile app that allows the instant reporting of abuse, including victims’ real-time locations.
But for some activists, the measures are not enough.
Naia Mira, 22, was among hundreds of women, most in their twenties, marching in Pamplona on Wednesday night, holding banners denouncing what they call a patriarchy that permeates all levels of life in Spain.
“Fear needs to change sides,” said Mira, adding that distrust in the judicial system is pushing some feminists to push for more self-defense.
The city’s left-wing mayor, Joseba Asiron, says that “Pamplona is leading the push against sexual aggression,” as officials reassure visitors that the festival is safe for both women and men to enjoy.
But Asiron, a 56-year-old historian whose term ends next spring, has also raised eyebrows ahead of this year’s festival by questioning the future of bullfights, a tradition at the core of the festival.
“I don’t envision a San Fermin festival without the bull runs, but I do see them happening one day without the corridas (bullfights),” he said.
Those remarks prompted angry bull breeders to answer that, without the bull fights, Asiron could forget about the bull runs. The Toro de Lidia foundation, which groups bull-related businesses and aficionados, claimed the industry injects 74 million euros ($86.5 million) into the city’s coffers each year.
Six bulls complete the 930-yard (850-meter) course to Pamplona’s bullring, where they are usually killed in televised bullfights during eight consecutive afternoons. Owners of private balconies overlooking the action charge spectators 140 euros ($164) per person to view the bulls and the runners careening down the town’s ancient streets.
“Once you open that door, there is no way back to save the running of the bulls without having them sacrificed in the bullring,” said Juan Cuesta, a 55-year-old Pamplona resident who looked on Thursday as over 100 animal rights activists protested the festival.
“I respect their opinion, but this is a wider debate that doesn’t need to come from politicians, but rather from society,” Cuesta added. “Right now, I don’t see the majority of people in Pamplona ready to give up on the DNA of San Fermin.”
The annual pro-animal rights protest on the eve of the festival used to go largely snubbed in Pamplona, but activists said more locals, especially younger people, have joined their campaigns in recent years as partial bans on bullfighting spread over dozens of Spanish towns.
Since the Spanish constitution protects corridas as part of the nation’s cultural heritage, new regulations usually aim at turning them into blood-free shows, banning any torment to the bull. They also forbid the consumption of alcohol and access for minors, while imposing anti-doping checks for animals and matadors.
“The idea is to make the corridas as boring as possible, by making them increasingly unappealing for bullfight promoters, so one day they can just fade away,” said Teodora Zgimblea, an activist with the Britain-based PETA animal rights group.
With the debate still in its infancy, it’s unclear whether the festival could survive without its most iconic symbol. But San Fermin has in the past survived calls for boycotts. Animal rights groups themselves don’t even dare suggest boycotting Pamplona because, according to Uriz, “we need to gain support step by step.”
The festival is also taking a strong position against sexual abuse. When national feminist groups urged participants in Pamplona’s Friday opening party to wear black in protest, local women’s-rights activists rebuked them, saying they had fought off sexual aggression for decades and would decide such matters on their own.
“Tomorrow, I will put on my white clothes and my red scarf around the neck,” Uriz said. “We have to go out and protest to change attitudes, but that doesn’t mean that I want to end my city’s festival altogether.”