Culture : Last Samba for Brazil's Powerful Lottery Lords? : A gutsy judge has convicted 14 bicheiros of racketeering. It could spell the end of the popular, century-old 'animal game.'


Dream a dream about an animal, say a monkey or a parrot or even an ostrich. Take your dream to the sidewalk and approach the man at the corner, the one sitting on a beer crate with a scratch pad and the mien of a bookie. Let the man translate your vision into a "bet," scratching down a number that corresponds to one creature or another in his bestiary. Take the hand-scribbled stub, and come back later to see if you are a winner.

Welcome to the jogo do bicho, the animal game, probably Brazil's biggest lottery, as popular as it is notorious. Millions play every day, all over Rio--all over Brazil, in fact. In a country where magic and mystery and chance run soul deep, the animal game has become a cherished institution.

But its days may be numbered. There is a dark side to this century-old bad habit. Mounting evidence suggests that the animal game is a front for all manner of felony, ranging from tax chiseling to drug running. The powerful men who run the game, the bicheiros , have also fallen from grace.

Earlier this month, in a move that startled the country, a mid-level criminal court justice, Denise Frossard, summarily slapped 14 of the gamesmen behind bars as a "threat to public order." One of the bicheiros' bodyguards, an off-duty policeman, was found carrying "high-caliber weapons and enough amunition to send to Saraejevo," the judge said. Three of the 14 fell ill, while the remaining 11 were handcuffed and led off to jail, silk suits and all.

Then, last Friday, Frossard sentenced each of the 14 bicheiros to six years in prison for racketeering and forming an armed band. The defense attorneys howled at what they saw as a breach of civil liberties and vowed to appeal. But Frossard was unblinking.

In a tension-filled five-hour session, with the courthouse jammed and ringed by heavily armed police troops, Frossard called out the names of each of the 11 healthy defendants present and read identical verdicts and sentences. One by one, she branded the bicheiros men of "immeasurable thirst for power," with "incalculable fortunes" obtained from illicit and violent acts.

The judge's orders have stunned the nation. Were they impulsive moves by a hotheaded jurist? Or have the authorities finally determined to crack down on this outlaw aristocracy? Was the judiciary taking the front line in an Italian-style offensive against the Brazilian mob?

It may be too soon to tell whether the crackdown will be lasting. But Frossard's actions have ignited instant response.

"It takes a lot of courage and support within the judiciary to make a move like this," said Alba Zaluar, an anthropologist, who has long studied the Brazilian underworld. "Before this, politicians did little but talk, and only temporary measures had been taken to suppress the bicheiros. "

The moves have also played well to the media and to a crime-weary public. "Society has no obligation, nor the stomach, to live side by side with these murderers," hailed the Jornal do Brasil, a leading Rio daily, in an editorial.

"This woman has made an important step toward rescuing our moral patrimony," said noted psychoanalyst Jurandir Freire Costa, speaking of Brazil's alarming complacency before spreading crime and injustice. "She challenged the attitude, 'This is not my problem.' This is all Brazil's problem."

From Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid to Robin Hood and Giuliano Salvatore, outlaws have long held spells over the rest of their societies. Their charms are magnified in communities of the unprotected and underfed, to whom the rules of ordinary life seem stacked against them.

"Where there is no regular or effective machinery for the maintenance of public order," wrote Eric Hobsbawm in "Bandits," his classic study of world outlaws. "There is not much use in appealing to authorities for protection."

Brazil is no exception. Two years ago, the residents of the hamlet of Serra Talhada voted by a crushing margin to erect a life-size statue of Lampiao, the backlands bandit who plundered the rich estates of the northeast land barons at the beginning of the century. (Last week, the town took to the streets to protest that the money for the monument had still not been released.)

The bicheiros' ascent into fame began almost a century ago. In 1893, the Brazilian nobleman Joao Batista Viana started a lottery as a means to fund the new city zoo. Bidders vied for door prizes by betting money on any one of the two dozen bichos , or animals, that could turn up in the daily drawing. The game was wildly popular and soon spread, much to the dismay of the authorities.

The government banned the jogo do bicho, but to no avail. It not only endured but burgeoned into the country's most lucrative lottery. Today an estimated 400,000 bookies and runners handle $2 billion in bets a year, better than half the $3.8 billion Brazilians spend on games of chance every year.

At first, the men who controlled the game, the so-called bicheiros , or bankers, battled bloodily for control of the most coveted neighborhoods. Police repressed the overt violence but tolerated the gaming racket in exchange for a respectable cut of the daily take, known to this day as the propina da policia, or the police payoff.

The bicheiros could be brutal bosses, snuffing out competing mafiosi if necessary, or anyone else who dared stand in their way. However, they needed room to maneuver and a sanctuary from which to operate. So they sugared their reign with doses of charity and recreation. Their social oeuvre includes funding for schools, soccer clubs and the yearly Carnaval parade.

Such rare bits of goodwill hardly qualify the bicheiros as saints. "They were never Robin Hoods," said Zaluar. "They were always calculating businessmen."

Nevertheless, even their sprinkling of favors and the semblance of authority go a long way in communities accustomed to neither. "They aren't even loved," said Roberto DaMatta, an anthropologist who studies popular culture. "But especially among the poor, they managed to create bonds of dependency."

The bicheiros also bought prestige in high places. The Rio de Janeiro state legislature awarded the son of the most famous bicheiro, Castor de Andrade, a Pedro Ernesto medal, given to those who serve "community, state and humanity." To this day, the bicheiros keep company with governors and mayors. During the pre-Lenten Carnaval pageant, they are a virtual fiesta nostra, parading like royalty at Rio's Samba stadium, the Sambodromo, before millions of television viewers.

Proposals to legalize the animal game, and so end the bicheiros' monopoly, have never gotten off the ground. The alleged reason: Bicheiros are a key source of political campaign funds.

But the bicheiros ' reputation for bonhomie began to tarnish in recent years. The government belatedly decided that if it could not ban the animal game, it could at least go head to head by starting its own lotteries. Ever since, the bicheiros have reportedly moved into more nefarious activities, allegedly financing the cocaine trade and trafficking in smuggled arms.

State prosecutor Rafael Cesario hunted the bicheiros for 10 years and linked them to more than 40 murder cases. He quit his crusade in disgust, however, when the cases would simply back up in the logjam of Rio's criminal courts. "I felt like a clown," Cesario said in an interview. "There's no political will to bring these guys to justice."

Judge Frossard appears to have mustered the will. Although she dismissed the most damaging charges, of murder and cocaine trafficking, for lack of evidence, other prosecutors have taken her lead, and more damning indictments are expected.

Nor can the bicheiros rely, as they have so often, on their high-priced legal help for a quick exit. A gutsy, 42-year-old career judge, Frossard has never had a sentence reversed on appeal.

She has been called Brazil's "iron lady" for her stern countenance and an unusual tenacity. One widely reported story tells of how she won a tussle with an armed assailant, managing to lock him into her apartment until the police arrived.

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