Sociology of jueteng

Surely there are more important things to talk about these days than this illegal poor man’s lottery that is hogging the headlines.  And surely, we have far more pressing tasks before us than going after local gambling lords and tracking down their powerful protectors.  So, why are we allowing ourselves to be distracted and agitated over jueteng?

The answer has little to do with the nature of the game itself.  It has everything to do with what it signifies and what functions it plays in the complex patronage system we call Philippine society.  It is reasonable for those with little knowledge of the role of jueteng in the local world of politics and governance not to sympathize with the uproar that is generated by this seemingly insignificant game.  But perhaps recalling its connection to recent political events may help explain some of the noise.  More important, understanding the sociology of jueteng may shed light on the extraordinary influence that gambling lords wield in our political system.

Jueteng has become the symbol of corruption in our society.  It will be remembered that it was the unmasking of President Joseph “Erap” Estrada as the country’s biggest jueteng protector and beneficiary that triggered his ouster as president in 2001 and paved the way for the succession of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the presidency.  Yet jueteng quietly flourished even more after Erap was thrown out. It may be assumed that it found new protectors in the Arroyo government.

If convincing proof is produced that Ms. Arroyo or any of her close relatives profited from jueteng, or had a direct hand in its preservation, the scandal would be sufficient to strip her of any moral standing as president.  This would make her vulnerable to other more charges like electoral fraud and misuse of public funds.  Battered by record-low approval ratings, the lowest for any sitting president, she would have a tough time staying in office.

The daily take from this game runs into hundreds of millions of pesos. The bets are collected from poor people who gamble their last pesos for the tiny chance of hitting the pot.  The bet collectors are a tight network of resourceful cadres that roam the communities at least twice a day, going down to the level of the household. This is a convertible system that is utilized for a variety of purposes depending on the need – monitor the political leanings of households, solicit or buy votes, distribute campaign leaflets, exchange foreign currency, remit OFW earnings to families, or even retail illegal drugs.

The tremendous profitability and illicit nature of the enterprise invite harassment and protection from those who are assigned to enforce the law. It is easy for the police and local authorities to turn a blind eye on jueteng because this form of gambling is generally viewed as a “victimless” offense. The bettors who lose their money do not feel exploited or injured. The fact that the government runs its own lottery and casinos virtually washes away the wrongness of the whole game.

Jueteng has its own rationality.  There are few forms of illicit income in our culture that are as widely shared as the take from jueteng.  Bet collectors or cobradores and their cabos, an assortment of individuals with little education or qualification for any other job, keep 15 centavos of every peso they collect.  Policemen get an untaxed costof-living allowance from jueteng that is regularly added to their salary. Mayors, congressmen and governors are offered an allowance they can spend on their personal charities and vices, without having to account for it.

Some priests and bishops are allotted their share of the jueteng largesse on special occasions.  Gambling operators may not be pious, but they are superstitious, and so it is not uncommon for many churches to be built on a generous dose of jueteng money. The jueteng lord is a small-town mafia don who makes and unmakes local politicians.  In some provinces, he himself or a close relative becomes an important politician.

The gambling lord inhabits the underside of our formal political and legal system, exploiting the weaknesses formed by the despair and dependence of a large number of our people who are not adequately served by our institutions.  With the resources he commands, he creates a network of loyalties founded on debt of gratitude.  He is like a little president with his own version of the President’s Social Fund, which, interestingly, is also sourced from gambling.  In his case at least, he does not use government funds.

Jueteng persists because of the many things it makes possible, not the least of which is the provision of a broad range of benefits and forms of assistance to a growing segment of the population. It is illegal but it is not viewed as immoral. Hence, no moral stigma is borne by its players.  It places in the hands of a few practical operators a big amount of undeclared and untaxed wealth that is used to subsidize the requirements of a social order based on patronclient ties.

Declaring a jueteng-free Philippines is pure twaddle.  The seasonal campaign against it may freeze betting for a while and weed out the small operators.  But the game itself will not go away so long as a large number of the poor pin their daily hopes on luck rather than on hard work, and so long as politicians rely on patronage rather than on competence to get elected.  The answer to jueteng lies in the provision of real jobs, not in the building of a casino economy; in the modernization of governance, not in the perpetuation of patronage.

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