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Jogo do Bicho ("the animal game") is an illegal gambling game in Brazil, prohibited by federal law since 1946. Very popular throughout the country, the "game" is actually a lottery-type drawing operated on a regional basis by mobsters known as contraventores (who commit misdemeanors), bicheiros or banqueiros ("bankers"). Unlike most state-operated lotteries, in Jogo do Bicho you can bet any amount of money, even a cent. Despite its popularity (and being more or less tolerated, especially in Rio de Janeiro), it is still illegal in 25 of the 26 states of Brazil and those involved may be prosecuted. Paraíba is the only state where the game is legal and regulated by the state, even though according to a federal law this activity is prohibited. In other northeastern states the game is tolerated by the government.
The name of the game arises from the association of the drawn numbers with a random selection of 25 animals (to help memorising):
Over the decades, superstitious theory has evolved around selecting the proper animal, much of it involving dreams. Horse, for example, can be indicated by a dream of a horse, or by dreams of wheat or milk or naked women. The elephant has come to be associated with death, and whenever there is a fatal traffic accident involving a car with one of the elephant's numbers (45-48) on its license plates, the betting is unusually heavy. When the Rio papers published the picture of a derailed locomotive in the 1960s, so many bet on the last four figures of its registration number that the bicheiros were forced to warn that they could not pay off at the usual odds if it won.
Each of 25 different animals is assigned a sequence of four consecutive numbers. Ostrich is 01 to 04, Horse 41-44, Camel 29-32, and so on up to the Cow, which occupies 97-00. The most common way to play is to bet one Real on an animal. If the last two numerals in the daily state lottery draw form one of the four numbers designated by your animal, the bicheiro owes you 15 reais. For longer odds and higher payouts, you can try to pick the last three or even four numbers exactly, or you can choose a combination of a number and numerals designated by an animal.
There were traditionally four types of prizes:
In modern times the game has become more complex with many variations of the above that may pay up to 50000 times the bet.
The creation of the game is fairly well-documented: originator of the jogo do bicho was baron João Batista Viana Drummond, a bluff, bawdy, Brazilian-born Englishman, to whom Emperor Dom Pedro II gave a title and the concession to the Rio de Janeiro zoo. To popularize the zoo, the Baron encouraged visitors to guess the identity of an animal concealed behind a curtain, paid off to winners. In time the guessing game became a tremendously popular numbers game, with different numbers for 25 Brazilian beasts.
Tickets were soon being bought by those who hadn't even visited the zoo. Within months, government authorities made its first attempt to shut down the game. The animal lottery simply shifted to a new habitat in the city centre, an environment in which it has thrived ever since. Rudyard Kipling, visiting Rio in the 1920s, wrote of seeing bookies wandering the streets carrying placards with colourful pictures of animals.
The game became popular because it accepted bets of any amount, in a time when most people struggled to survive a very deep economic crisis. "If you see two shacks lost somewhere in the backlands," a Brazilian diplomat once observed, "you can bet that a bicheiro lives in one of them and a steady bettor in the other."
For decades official policy fluctuated between tolerance of the game, fueled by generous payoffs to authorities, and intermittent campaigns to snuff it out. Finally, in 1946, the government outlawed casinos and games of chance, the animal game among them. Nevertheless it survives. Today it is played everywhere in Brazil, but continues to be controlled from Rio de Janeiro by about a dozen bosses, called bicheiros.
A crackdown on the game by the police in 1966 nearly paralysed São Paulo. More than 60,000 men were idled. At the time it had grown into a US$500 million-a-year business that employed roughly 1% of Brazils total working force. The crisis was quietly resolved in return for unspecified concessions.
Since its early inception the game has preserved a hierarchy: operators (banqueiros), managers (gerentes) and dealers (vendedores). This same hierarchy was later reproduced in the organisation of drug-trafficking and other types of organised crime in Brazil (this being an important charge against the game, that it provided a structure that the crime bosses could build upon).
Operations are carried on at pontos (points-of-sale) where the dealers collect money and keep record of the bets. The bets (and the money) are sent to the central operator (banca) where the draw is done. All it takes is a scribbled note or a phone call to any of the thousands of bicheiros who haunt the street corners, shops and offices of every city and are easily identified by their sunglasses, cigars and/or typical floral or printed shirts. Neither the pontos nor the bancas need a fixed operational centre. Most pontos are mere stools or wooden boxes on which the dealers sit through the day.
Drawings are usually held at 2 PM. in local bicho headquarters, and the winning numbers are immediately dispatched by taxi and bicycle, scribbled in chalk on designated walls and lampposts. So clogged do phone lines become after each drawing that telephone company executives call it "the bicho hour."
The draw is not fair: if too many people bet on a same number it is removed from the lot to prevent the quebra da banca (bankruptcy). This is necessary because most bancas operate with slim resources and their owners do not want to invest their personal assets to pay the bets.
Because it is an activity that deals with large sums of sounding money, out of the reach of the government control, the game has attracted the attention of corrupt officials, who may ally with the bosses. The bosses are always interested in buying the leniency of the government or the removal from office of people active on the game's repression. Due to its unlawful bonds with public officials of dubious character, the game still exists, more than a hundred years after its creation.
To foster public support, the bosses invested part of their enormous earnings in activities like the financing of samba schools and football clubs. From the early 1970s until now, nearly all of the Rio de Janeiro samba schools are under the control of bicho bosses (bicheiros). Two soccer clubs that were famous for their association with such bosses were Bangu (with Castor de Andrade) and Botafogo (with Emil Pinheiro).
"The animal game is a deeply embedded cultural phenomenon with a certain romantic aura, and thus hard to eradicate," according to Denise Frossard, a former judge who became famous for sending 14 bicheiros to jail in 1993. "But it is also a quintessentially Brazilian way of laundering money and contributes greatly to the problem of impunity in this country." The bicheiros were arrested for criminal association and forming armed gangs. According to prosecutor Antônio Carlos Biscaia, the bicheiros built an association with the principal goal to corrupt authorities and cops and the elimination of 130 people. The superintendent of this association was Castor de Andrade. They were sentenced to six years each, the maximum sentence for racketeering. But in December 1996 they were all back on the streets, granted parole or clemency.
In March, 1994, police raided the stronghold of Castor de Andrade in Bangu. They seized 200 account books and 167 computer diskettes. The findings revealed that big names had been profiting from the illegal activities of bicho's Mafia. Among them, former president Fernando Collor de Mello, Rio governor Nilo Batista, São Paulo mayor Paulo Maluf, Rio mayor Cesar Maia, seven entrepreneurs, three judges, 12 congressmen and seven assemblymen, 25 police commissioners and 100 police officers.
The bicheiros Antonio Petrus Kalil, or Turcão, Anísio Abraão David, or Anísio, and Capitão Guimarães, at the time president of the Independent League of Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro, were among 24 people arrested on April 12, 2007, for alleged involvement with illegal numbers games, bingo parlors and the distribution of slot machines. Raids by the Federal Police have uncovered big payoffs to judges, police officers, prosecutors and lawyers from the bosses who run the game. Mounds of documents have been seized and US$6 million in cash has been confiscated.
The possibility of legalisation has been often argued, but no practical decision on this subject has ever been made (perhaps because the game's bosses bribe the authorities not to usurp their business).
Despite being illegal, the game left some cultural influences in Brazilian society, even among people that have never played it. One of the most impressive influences of Jogo do Bicho is the strong association of the number 24 with homosexuality in Brazil. In the game 24 is the number given to a deer (veado in Portuguese), an animal that has long been pejoratively associated with gay men. Male people related with this number often have to deal with jokes about their sexuality. This happens, for example, with schoolboys listed as number 24 in the class' alphabetical list or men that are born on the 24th of any month.
The number 24 is heavily avoided by Brazilian male athletes, with rare exceptions. In Stock Car Brasil racing, for example, drivers are allowed to choose their numbers, but the number 24 has never been chosen since the first Stock Car tournament, in 1979.
Another legacy of Jogo do Bicho is the use of zebra meaning upset. In 1964, before a football game between Portuguesa (RJ) and Vasco da Gama, the manager of Portuguesa, a much weaker team, was asked if he could defeat Vasco. Gentil Cardoso, the manager, commented that beating Vasco would be like drawing a zebra in Jogo do Bicho. As there is no zebra in the game, his sentence expressed an impossibility. However, Portuguesa did win that game (by 2-1), and since then the term zebra is used in Brazil for upsets in sports.
Paraíba is the only federal unity where the game is considered legal, despite the federal law that prohibits it. The game is regulated by the Lottery of Paraíba (LOTEP), which gives licenses for the "bankers" as lottery agents, to avoid the game to become associated with organized crime as in Rio de Janeiro. The state capital, João Pessoa, has 15 authorized points. Each point pays a monthly tax to LOTEP, the amount differs in each city, depending on its business volume, in João Pessoa the amount is R$6.000. The draw is made three times a day in the LOTEP building and released by the official state radio.