Lord of the numbers?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 12:00am

Mike Arroyo, the president's spouse, is the media's latest candidate for one of the country's mythic titles: jueteng lord. It is mythic because while most Filipinos believe jueteng lords exist, nobody has actually been able to conclusively identify one - and for good reason, perhaps. That exalted being is a kingpin, a key figure in a huge numbers racket that is plaguing the Philippines.

Jueteng is the country's most popular gambling game: all a player has to do is put up any amount of money and guess two numbers, each between one and 37. Depending on how the numbers come up in a draw, a player could win 800 times the amount of the bet. The game happens to be illegal but, as you might guess, in this country that is not even a minor inconvenience. Jueteng is run as a vast shadow enterprise that covers entire regions, largely in the main island of Luzon.

Making it all happen, and raking in huge untaxed wealth, are the lords. Quoting unnamed sources, the biggest daily newspaper here strongly hints that Mr Arroyo is one of them. It would not be the first time that a high-ranking politician has been linked: one of the charges against ex-president Joseph Estrada is that he helped himself to income from jueteng syndicates.

Jueteng lords might come and go - Filipinos' addiction to the game is permanent. It allows very small bets, and the possible winnings are as astronomical as the actual chances of winning them. Draws are held daily and participants do not even have to leave their houses; a collector (cobrador) comes round to pick up bets and hand out winnings. Syndicates control the collection of bets, the picking of numbers and the handout of winnings, all run with an efficiency that would shame government ministries.

The game's real impact is not measured in its payouts, but in payoffs. A whole range of public officials get a share of the billions of pesos that jueteng supposedly generates each year. Police and soldiers are paid to look the other way, or to protect the syndicates. The size of the enterprise guarantees that anyone prying into its workings is more likely to wind up dead than informed. Some murdered journalists were supposedly investigating illegal gambling.

All this contributes to an attitude of cynicism about the government's efforts to suppress the game. When he was president, Estrada claimed that he was waging a successful war against it. Instead, it turns out that he might have been one of the biggest benefactors. With this as an example, it is little wonder that no one is rushing to proclaim Mr Arroyo's innocence.

Filipinos might gamble, but few would probably bet on something like that.