A century ago, when Brazil was Latin America's only monarchy, a nobleman named Joao Batista Viana de Drummond opened Rio's first zoo. To attract customers, he started a daily raffle with gate prizes. And, in a fitting flourish, the numbers used for the raffle were symbolized by animals: the ostrich, the camel, the elephant, the monkey, the tiger and others.
Baron Drummond could not have imagined the vast and lucrative menagerie of chance that has evolved from those early drawings in his little zoo. The zoo is long gone, but Brazil's jogo do bicho , or "animal game," today is a multimillion-dollar numbers racket, a nationwide betting empire that employs hundreds of thousands of people--perhaps the most extensive illegal gambling operation in the world.
Linked to Drug Trade
It has also spawned a tropical Mafia of big-time banqueiros , or "bankers," for this immense racket, who buy public respect by financing samba clubs, soccer teams, charity projects and political campaigns. State prosecutors say "animal game" bankers also are behind such unsavory activities as gangland slayings and cocaine trafficking.
But the banqueiros have ways of avoiding the defendant's bench and the prisoner's cell. No banqueiro has been convicted in recent years of any crime more serious than smuggling video poker machines into the country. Currently, authorities do not even prosecute violations of anti-gambling laws by "animal game" operations.
As a result, a folkloric institution that was regarded as an innocent national pastime during the first half of this century has come increasingly to be run by a powerful Mafia whose dark doings, many officials say, are masked by a carefully built structure of influence and corruption.
More Popular Than Ever
The game is more openly played now than at any time since 1946, when gambling was outlawed in Brazil. The Rio newspaper O Globo estimated recently that, nationwide, the game employs 700,000 people and handles more than $150 million a month.
There are 300 banqueiros in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone, according to one of them who acts as spokesman for the others. Luciano Pereira, who says he uses a pseudonym because his business is still illegal, added that there are 3,000 "spots," or betting places, in the state, some of them street-corner sidewalks, others stores rented or owned by bicheiros , as the street operators are known .
Some spots have as many as 40 employees, and statewide, at least 45,000 people earn a living from the game, Pereira said.
The game itself is no more nefarious than a variety of lotteries run by the Brazilian government. Players pick numbers, as they do in any lottery, and a few lucky numbers are drawn for cash prizes. The main difference is that the names of 25 animals, in alphabetical order from the avestruz (ostrich) to the vaca (cow), are used to liven up the cold ciphers in "animal game" parlance. Each animal stands for four numbers. So a bet placed on the ostrich pays off with 1, 2, 3 or 4, while the cow wins with 97, 98, 99 or 100.
More complicated variations permit betting on longer numbers, with possible prizes running up to 4,000 times the stake; but on any day of the week, a player has 1 chance in 25 of winning a simple bet on any animal, or four numbers. The payoff for a simple bet is 18 to 1.
The bankers who operate the jogo do bicho now promote their good-guy image boldly and with increasing success. They are widely publicized and romanticized, often admired and emulated.
One of the most popular characters on Brazilian television during the past year was Tony Carrado, a rough-talking but soft-hearted banqueiro who dominated the prime-time soap opera "Mandala." Tony ended up winning the soap opera's classy leading lady, played by Vera Fischer, and thoroughly enjoying his good fortune.
Not all Brazilian banqueiros are so lucky, however, and their collective aura of respectability is sometimes punctured with dark holes. After midnight on May 28, anonymous killers with submachine guns opened fire on banqueiro Marco Correa de Melo as he arrived at his apartment in Leblon, an upscale Rio beach area. No one has yet been charged with the murder of Melo, nicknamed "Marquinho," and police say the motive is still not clear.
'Witnesses Are Afraid'
"In all crimes of that kind, it is hard to get witnesses, because the witnesses are afraid," said Inspector Rescalle Abdenur, who heads the investigative police in Leblon.
A uniformed policeman known as "Hulk" was wounded in the shooting. He has denied newspaper reports that he was acting as Marquinho's bodyguard.
For a few days, the Marquinho rub-out opened a window on the dark side of the "animal game." Newspapers noted that not only Marquinho but other banqueiros have often employed policemen as guards and gunmen. They also recalled that Marquinho had been involved in bloody turf warfare between banqueiros here in the early 1980s. And they said he had tried more recently to take over betting locations belonging to banqueiros in other states.
Marquinho was an ambitious renegade, the errant son of Raul Correa de Melo, one of Rio's most powerful banqueiros. Raul Captain, as the father is known, runs the "animal game" in Ilha do Governador, a densly populated suburb.
State prosecutor Ekel da Souza, attached to the criminal court in Ilha do Governador, said he is investigating the abduction and disappearance of two young men who were suspected of robbing a boutique owned by Raul Captain's daughter. Though no bodies have been found, Souza surmised that the two were killed for the boutique robbery.
'Law of the Mafia'
The animal game godfathers do not leave enforcement to the criminal justice system.
"Among them, there is that law of the Mafia," Souza said. "If someone breaks their rules, he is simply eliminated."
He said the banqueiros make "fantastic amounts of money" and use it freely to pay off policemen with fat propinas policiais, or police bribes, known as the "PP."
An "animal game" spokesman said police bribes are no longer used, because government authorities have stopped prosecuting game organizers for illegal gambling, but Souza insisted, "I am certain that the "animal game" does not function without payoffs. The PP continues to exist."
"Animal game" organizers also deny any connection with Brazil's growing cocaine traffic, but Souza said he is convinced that the connection is widespread.
"It is clear that the banqueiro does not have the function of distributing the drug," he said. "He operates in the financing area, which makes his apprehension more difficult. He operates on the wholesale level, not the retail."
Rafael Cesario, another state prosecutor, agreed with Souza. In a separate interview, Cesario said banqueiros began using cocaine transactions to "recycle" their profits from the "animal game" in the late 1970s.
Major Cocaine Market
"Brazil, which had insignificant consumption of cocaine, now is one of the world's major consumers," Cesario said. "They ('animal game' banqueiros ) brought it here."
In 1985, Cesario headed a special investigative commission that found "animal game" links to 40 unsolved cases of homicide and disappearance after abduction. Working on his own later, Cesario said he discovered about 100 similar cases linked to the "animal game."
"I consider the American Mafia to be Boy Scouts compared to the Brazilian 'animal game,' " he said.
In his investigation of homicides linked to the game, he added, he found that 40 policemen were on the payroll of Castor de Andrade, Rio's top banqueiro. Cesario said he became discouraged and dropped his research of "animal game" crimes after police proved uncooperative and higher authorities filed his commission's report without taking further action. The prosecutor predicted that corruption will continue to guarantee impunity for banqueiros.
Inspector Claudio Barrouin Mello of the federal police in Rio said many police and government authorities have come to accept the "animal game." The acceptance, he said, is a result of "institutionalized corruption, a corruption that has reached not only state agencies responsible for public security but also the legislative branch."
'Embryo of Crime'
Emphasizing that he was expressing personal opinions and not speaking officially, Mello said the "animal game" hierarchy has taken advantage of its special status to become "the embryo of organized crime" in Brazil. As an example, he cited what he said were clear connections between the "animal game" and cocaine trafficking.
A cocaine trafficker named Antonio Jose Nicolau and known as Toninho Turco, or "Little Tony Turk," was killed by federal police in a drug raid last February. More than 80 other people, including several managers of "animal game" betting locations, were arrested in the raid and charged with distributing cocaine, Mello said. He said that Toninho Turco had been supplying cocaine to distributors in 22 Rio slums and that in some of them, the drug was delivered to managers of "animal game" locations. The managers then passed the drugs on to distributors, he said.
"We made a series of deductions (and concluded) that there is a very big interconnection between the traffic and 'animal game' bankers," Mello said, adding that the connections include major financing by banqueiros for cocaine trafficking. But he said he had no proof against the big bankers that would hold up in court. And even if he did, he admitted, the banqueiros are well equipped to face any charges.
"The great lawyers are on the payroll of 'animal game' organized crime," he said.
For the past year, Alcides Fonseca has headed a special commission of the state legislature in Rio that is investigating the illegal drug trade. Fonseca declined to give details of the commission's findings so far, but he said it has confirmed that cocaine traffic is financed by "animal game" bankers.
'80% Are Trafficking'
"They are the major heads of that business," he said. Not all banqueiros, he added, but "80% are into trafficking."
Fonseca favors legalizing the "animal game" and putting it under government control. But that is not likely to happen soon, he said.
As part of their public relations policy, Rio's banqueiros have designated Luciano Pereira as their spokesman. One recent morning Pereira was sitting shirtless behind a cluttered desk in his small office, where an air conditioner hummed and a radio blared. He interrupted an interview frequently to answer his telephones and instruct messengers, making quick calculations in a spiral notebook and counting thick sheaves of folded money.
Pereira glibly reeled off information about the jogo do bicho. The seven biggest banqueiros in metropolitan Rio are the recognized leaders of the state's "animal game" hierarchy, which has become a guiding influence on the game in most other states, he said. The alliance among banqueiros here is the most harmonious of any state, and turf wars are a thing of the past.
"It hasn't happened for years," he said. "Everything is divided up and parceled out."
Still, he acknowledged that the late banqueiro Marquinho had forcefully taken over some locations in two neighboring states and that that could have resulted in his assassination.
But Pereira, 58, was adamant in denying that the game has anything to do with drug trafficking.
"That is absurd," he said. "We are too carefully watched. If we messed with drugs, we would have been destroyed a long time ago."
What they are involved in, Pereira said with enthusiasm, is schools, medical care, samba clubs and soccer teams. He listed a handful of banqueiros who have invested in professional soccer, Brazil's most popular sport, and he ticked off the names of several others who are the patrons of major samba clubs, the massive musical troupes that star in Brazil's glittering pre-Lenten Carnival.
One samba school patron is Aniz Abrahao David, the main banqueiro in Nilopolis, a working-class suburb 25 miles north of downtown Rio. Anizio, as he is known, presides over the Beija Flor samba club, which he helped raise over the years from its humble beginnings to the first ranks of Carnival extravagance. The club has a hall as big as a hangar, with a long bar, balconies and a huge, hardwood dance floor.
"The one who paid for all of this is Anizio, all from his own pocket," said Paulo Cesar Gomes, Anizio's top assistant, as he showed off the club's facilities. "This is the biggest samba club dance floor in Brazil."
Gomes said Anizio's family provides 5,000 free meals a month to poor people in Nilopolis, donates 100 wheelchairs a month to invalids and pays for medical and dental care needed by low-income families without government health insurance.
The family also paid for the maternity ward in the community hospital and built a private nursery school and a primary school for poor children. It is now building a secondary school and an old peoples' home, Gomes said.
Like many other banqueiros, Anizio has an active interest in politics. The mayor of Nilopolis, a city of nearly 300,000 people, is his brother. Another brother is a state legislator, as is a cousin, and another cousin is a national congressman.
Brazilian political analysts say the banqueiros help many candidates from different parties finance their campaigns.
"They are an electoral force," sociologist Luiz Machado da Silva said. "A banqueiro will never be a senator or a president of the republic, but he can be essential to the election of a senator or a president, so he is a kind of behind-the-scene power."