In Rio, Jogo do Bicho Is Fair Game
The animal game turns philanthropic barons into gambling bosses and gambling bosses into philanthropic barons.
The animal game turns bookies into mathematical zoologists and interpreters of dreams. It turns welders and peddlers and hairdressers into hunters chasing lions and monkeys and peacocks through streets dense with meaning and mystery.
The animal game is jogo do bicho, a billion-dollar Brazilian lottery that is illegal and respectable, clandestine and brazen, joyful and murderous. To understand Brazil, you have to understand jogo do bicho, which does not appear on postcards but intertwines with tourist passions that do: samba, Carnaval and soccer.
Only in the upside-down universe of the animal game does Santa Claus seem to cast the shadow of a ninja.
Imagine a beardless Santa Claus with a fringe of gray hair encircling his sun-reddened dome. A tropical Santa wearing white clogs, red shorts, a shirt open over a matted chest, and a crucifix on a ropelike gold necklace hanging to his gut. A roguish Santa with a misdemeanor rap sheet, missing teeth, slitted eyes and thick forearms who sits heavily and regally on a folding chair behind a folding table on the sidewalk.
His name is Wanderly. He is a bookie. He has spent 21 years taking bets in a semi-industrial flatland that is a long way, geographically and economically, from the beach. On the brick wall behind him rises the black silhouette of a masked ninja, sword in combat position, that is the logo of a paint store.
“They say the game is a marginal activity,” says Wanderly, 65. “It’s not. I raised four kids and gave them educations with this job. I’m no bum. I work hard.”
Wanderly’s open-air stand is a ponto, one of an estimated 3,000 betting locales that function illegally but openly here.
In many ways, the animal lottery resembles the “numbers game” that once thrived in U.S. inner cities but has been largely eclipsed by legal gambling. Players place bets on series of numbers that pay off based on the odds and complexity of the combinations.
The Brazilian version introduces a colorful and symbolic dimension in which numbers represent animals: 1 represents the ostrich, 2 the eagle, 3 the donkey, and so on up to 25. The animals in turn are associated with physical and personality traits: Lions are strong, monkeys are sneaky, deer are effeminate.
The animal lottery is an underground industry with a reputation for reliability and an estimated 80,000 employees in Rio alone. It has typically Brazilian dimensions, generating an estimated 10 million bets a day nationwide.
Lately, though, the game has run into bad luck that accentuates its dark side. The illicit lottery’s big-time gambling bosses, the old-school gangsters known as bicheiros, have been prosecuted or slain or have succumbed to old age. Investigators have linked them to drug trafficking, gunrunning and institutionalized bribery. The government could soon increase the competition by legalizing casinos in one of the world’s biggest untapped gambling markets.
Nonetheless, the bosses of the animal game are still admired community leaders because of their longtime role as patrons of Rio’s samba schools, the training ground for performers of Carnaval.
Like samba music, jogo do bicho is essential to the Brazilian identity, according to Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, a professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana. DaMatta and fellow academic Elena Soarez just published a book titled “Eagles, Donkeys and Butterflies,” a study that digs beyond the organized-crime angle that frames most discussions of the game.
DaMatta describes the century-old animal lottery as a “carnivalization of capitalism,” born of the immense creativity and psychological survival skills of Brazilians. In a nation where the currency and the government undergo recurring and traumatic change, the game is a fixture of popular culture, like sports and religion, that preserves identity and faith in the future, according to the book.
The betting ritual enables Brazilians “to move from probability to certainty, impersonality to intimacy, poverty to wealth, and despair to hope,” the book says. It “reintroduces magic into everyday life.”
A Las Vegas consultant lobbying to legalize casino gambling in Brazil offers a more prosaic analysis.
“Brazilians like to gamble; even the weather is an excuse to gamble,” said Ciro Bartelli of Mr. Vegas International, who added that legislation authorizing casinos could pass here by year’s end. Brazilians make up the fourth-largest contingent of foreign visitors to Las Vegas after Japanese, South Koreans and Mexicans, Bartelli said.
‘A Singer Is the Rooster’
In the animal game, bets are inspired by hunches, superstitions and dreams. If you dream about a pig, you might wake up in the morning, hurry to your local bookie and bet on a combination based on the number 18.
But it gets more complicated than that. You might also bet on 18 if you dream about a dirty house, because pigs are dirty. Aficionados sift through their dreams for messages.
“A dead man represents an elephant, a shoe is a camel, water is an alligator, a singer is the rooster,” Wanderly explains.
He should know. He is considered a man of wisdom and status, a sidewalk sage. Players ask him to help decipher their dreams.
“I have good dreams,” Wanderly says, thumbing through a wad of bills. “I have made a lot of money off my dreams.”
And off the dreams of others. Wanderly sets up shop at 6 a.m. and works until 8 p.m. There are three lotteries a day except Sunday, when there is one. The average bet is one or two reals (a real is worth about 50 cents), but some bet in the hundreds; the most Wanderly ever paid out is $16,000.
When it rains, clients find Wanderly across the street in a little open-walled lanchonete, or diner, where flies dive-bomb coconuts and stale pastries under plastic covers.
Fast-moving messengers stop by three times a day to pick up proceeds and relay the winning numbers, which are dictated from a secret headquarters and posted punctually on walls or lampposts.
An all-day parade of clients stops to pull betting slips from the wooden box on Wanderly’s folding table: laborers with name tags pinned to factory overalls, young men in the Brazilian street-corner uniform of bare torso, shorts and flip-flops, an elderly lady who counts coins with frayed fingers and always bets on the cobra, No. 9.
Other players count on birthdays, gravestones and other sources of numbers to unlock the gates of fortune.
“If I dream of a friend of mine, I’ll bet the numbers in their address,” said Flavio Nascimento, 26, an office messenger who plays every day.
Nascimento learned how to play from his grandmother, who was renowned for her visions. He consults newsstand almanacs devoted to advice on the animal lottery that are comparable to “dream books” associated with the numbers game in the United States.
Published or word-of-mouth, the strategies are endless. Numbers associated with an unusual or dramatic event have good vibes. If cars crash near a betting corner, players rush into the street to jot down the license numbers.
Everything means something in the psychological labyrinth of jogo do bicho, but the logic can be arcane.
“It all depends,” says the spry, bespectacled black man who runs the ponto by a flower stand near the beach in Copacabana. “You might dream of a dog, but you don’t necessarily bet on the puppy. If it’s a big dog, it might really mean the elephant. Or the cat is treacherous, so you bet on the donkey instead because it’s reliable. Everybody has their own interpretation.”
The ethics are similarly flexible. Players say the pastime is harmless and insist that the animal game is more trustworthy and efficient than many government services.
“I trust the animal game more than the government lottery,” Nascimento said.
Because the underworld does not declare its earnings, it is hard to compare the popularity of jogo do bicho with official lotteries introduced here in recent years. Last month, the thriving federal lottery paid out a $32-million prize--a record for Brazil.
The uniquely Brazilian allure of the animal game retains legions of die-hards, however. Clients and bookies sing the praises of the bosses, saying they create jobs and give the little guy a shot at big money.
Earning the standard 10% of his sales, which reach about $500 a day, Wanderly makes a solid living. He shrugs off the 20-odd arrests on his record; the bosses retain sharp lawyers who get him off with a fine.
Wanderly intends to continue the tradition of keeping the turf in the family.
“My oldest son knows the business; he has filled in for me when I’m sick,” he said. “But he prefers soccer. He’s always chasing the ball around. I hope one of my other kids will take over.”
This hierarchical mentality applies to entire cities and states. Many top bicheiros inherit empires from their fathers. They are legendary for their high-rolling largess and carry themselves like street aristocrats.
That’s not inappropriate. The animal game was invented by Baron Joao Vianna Drummond, a Brazilian nobleman, in 1892. The baron founded a zoo as part of a movement to make Rio a modern, European-style city in a society that had recently abolished slavery, established democracy and separated church and state.
To generate funds for the zoo, Drummond organized a daily raffle based on entry tickets bearing pictures of animals. Attendance skyrocketed. But the patrons were far more interested in the animals on the raffle tickets than the ones in the cages.
The lottery’s subsequent growth reflects a taste for games of chance as well as a more profound national trait, according to Soarez: “Although the ideas of the new state were liberty and equality, they were introduced in an aristocratic society dominated by barons. . . . Jogo do bicho emerged as a mechanism that signaled the possibility of social mobility. . . . [It] symbolically connected the poor to the rich and the weak to the powerful.”
Game Was Outlawed--and Flourished More
The rulers of the nascent democracy remained authoritarian and wary, however. Like Afro-Brazilian religions and other activities seen as potentially subversive, the animal game was soon outlawed--and flourished all the more. At its peak in the late 1980s, the lottery functioned virtually without official interference in Rio, where a “cupola” of a dozen gangsters still oversees a nationwide empire.
For decades, the bosses have also bankrolled orphanages, hospitals, factories, major soccer teams and other legitimate businesses. They have cultivated a high profile as beloved benefactors of neighborhood samba schools that spend all year preparing spectacular dance routines, parade floats and costumes for Carnaval, which is the cultural soul of Rio and one of the world’s top tourist attractions.
The creation of an official Samba Schools League to organize Carnaval in the mid-1980s distanced the jogo do bicho from the yearly extravaganza, according to league officials. But samba schools are still linked to gambling bosses. And Luiz Pacheco Drumond, the president of the Samba Schools League, is considered a top boss. He was convicted of gambling-related crimes last year and in 1993. He appealed the recent conviction and is free on bail.
The enduring clout of the bosses does not obscure the fact that there have been more than a hundred killings related to jogo do bicho in the past decade. A reputed turf war last year felled three bosses, including Paulinho de Andrade, son of the late and legendary godfather Castor de Andrade. A hit man in a suit and tie gunned down Paulinho and a bodyguard in a Jeep Cherokee outside the mobster’s office in the wealthy Barra da Tijuca neighborhood.
Courageous prosecutors cracking down on the gambling mobs in recent years discovered voluminous evidence that bosses pay millions of dollars in bribes to police and other officials.
In a recent scandal, alleged kingpin Manoel Ventura Durso stormed into a courthouse last month and testified that he had paid more than $1 million in campaign contributions and kickbacks to Gov. Joaquim Roriz of Brasilia, the nation’s capital, who allegedly promised Durso control of new mechanized gambling in the federal district. Durso said he was incensed because the promise was not kept. The governor’s aides denied the allegations.
Like the dignified Don Corleone character in “The Godfather,” the bosses style themselves as family men with a code of honor. Documents found in a raid on Castor de Andrade’s mansion in 1994 recorded pension-type payments to the widows of henchmen who had been rubbed out on Andrade’s orders. And the bosses have insisted that they abhor drug dealers.
Gambling Bosses Receive Honors
The denials disgust Congressional Deputy Antonio Carlos Biscaia, who serves on a congressional commission on drug trafficking. As a prosecutor in the 1980s and early 1990s, he led landmark investigations of the gambling underworld here.
The gangsters protect themselves by rubbing elbows with political figures and wrapping themselves in the flags of Carnaval and other popular pursuits, Biscaia said. In addition to death threats and machine-gun attacks, he said, prosecutors put up with ostracism and seeing “the criminals of the jogo do bicho being honored on television for their community service.”
The gambling kingpins have moved into less gentlemanly rackets: drug trafficking, arms sales and contraband, Biscaia said. If casinos are legalized, the gangsters will expand into that area too, he predicted.
Billion-dollar criminal networks give the bicheiros the potential to rival the powerful gangsters of Colombia and Sicily, Biscaia said.
“We know that in Colombia and Sicily the mafias reached the point where they ran candidates for office,” Biscaia said. “That is the danger here. The great menace is when organized crime penetrates the power structure, because then it cannot be controlled.”
Major trials in the past five years resulted in convictions of numerous bosses and police cohorts. Though most received minor sentences, the justice system has gotten tougher. Police in Rio just formed a new squad to combat illegal gambling. Beat cops are more likely to bust flagrant operations.
Nonetheless, business remains brisk. Wanderly does not look worried.
“You see this?” The bald bookie holds up a sheaf of betting slips with his ink-stained fingers. “This will never go down. This is the poor man’s game.”
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Bettors and the Beast
In many ways, Brazil’s animal lottery resembles the “numbers game” that once thrived in U.S. inner cities. Players place bets on series of numbers that pay off based on the odds and complexity of the combinations. The Brazilian version introduces a colorful and symbolic dimension: The numbers represent animals. One represents the ostrich, two the eagle, three the donkey, and so on up to 25. The animals in turn are associated with physical and personality traits: lions are strong, monkeys are sneaky, deer are effeminate.
Animals corresponding to numbers