Jueteng in disguise

After the disgraceful exit from the presidency of Joseph “Erap’ Estrada in January 2001, the new government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo went through the routine of waging a war on illegal gambling. Estrada had been charged with, among other things, taking bribes from gambling lords. Ms Arroyo wanted to show she was different, notwithstanding the fact that her staunchest political ally and supporter in her home province ofPampanga was Lilia “Baby” Pineda, the wife of the alleged gambling lord, Bong Pineda, who was implicated in the case against Estrada.

Thus began an elaborate charade that prepared the ground for the launching of the “new STL” in February 2006.  According to the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) website, President Arroyo “tasked the PCSO to help in the campaign to stamp out jueteng and to democratize charity at the national and local levels by introducing an alternative – the Small Town Lottery or STL.”  New vices always make their appearance in the name of old virtues.

One cannot miss the deliberate attempt to dress up the STL as something good, or, at least, harmless. Democracy and Cory are invoked in passing to disarm any suspicion: “The new STL is a democratized form of the grassroots-based lottery and charity first introduced during the time of President Corazon Aquino.”

Yet, the STL’s latent function – to mask jueteng – seemed obvious from the start. I quote again from the PCSO website: “In late March 2006, the National Police Commission, in coordination with PCSO, released guidelines for STL operations to policemen.  Under the guidelines, police cannot arrest anybody authorized by the PCSO to operate the STL except if there are complaints from the PCSO, local government officials, religious groups, and non-government organizations.”

Gambling operators and bet collectors clearly needed protection from those who would often use the power to arrest in order to extort more money. The PCSO authorization and STL identification cards gave them the license to solicit bets without fear of harassment. Of course, it was not easy to tell if the bets were for jueteng or for STL because in most places, these two supposedly competing numbers game shared the same personnel.  But that was the whole point.

Almost overnight, jueteng became a non-issue, appearing only occasionally in news reports. Under Ms Arroyo, not a single jueteng operator or collector was arrested for illegal gambling.  Yet everyone knew it was flourishing throughout the former president’s term. What happened?  Jueteng simply vanished in the shadow of STL, where, undisturbed, it could perform its auxiliary function as a steady provider of slush funds to politicians.

For the period 2006-2007, the PCSO claims it generated P3 billion pesos in revenue and 62,500 jobs.  The revenue seems big, but it is a pittance compared to the estimated monthly take of juetengoperators in Pampanga alone, which is about P500 million, according to a recent Inquirer report.  The government yield from STL dwindled considerably after the first year, prompting the PCSO to suspend in 2009 the processing of new applications pending a comprehensive review of the program.

Shorn of its pretensions, the STL is nothing more than government’s way of taxing jueteng.  But, this is done in an absurdly roundabout way.  You cannot tax something without conceding its legality. Legalizing jueteng is a thorny issue that, like divorce and contraception, draws the most passionate reaction from the Catholic hierarchy.  So, in lieu of outright legalization, the government has offered the STL, a legitimate cover that permits juetengoperators to conceal the full extent of their business, and government to pretend it has solved the juetengproblem.  It is analogous to giving a motel license to someone you know is really in the prostitution business.

It is difficult to appreciate the government’s acrobatics on jueteng, except as a form of hypocritical compliance with Church norms, or as a way of preserving the game’s usefulness to patronage politics. For, the truth is, without going through the rigors of acrimonious public debate, the government has adopted a policy of legalizing various forms of gambling in this country.  We have been offering, in the last few years, a full menu of games of chance – casino games, STL, instant sweepstakes, lotto, jaialai, etc., apart from jueteng,masiao, and many other still illegal forms of gambling.  Nothing much separates the legal from the illegal operators, except that the latter pay their taxes to politicians, police and military officials, while the former do so to agencies of government.

Today, President Aquino’s government finds itself in exactly the same position as all past administrations.  It is being asked to define its policy on gambling — jueteng, in particular. Will it legalize the game, or will it wage another pro forma campaign against it, while continuing the STL charade?  Will it open more gambling facilities, or will it take steps to restrict gambling in the country?  Will the state continue to be the biggest operator of gambling facilities, or will it give up this non-essential function?  These questions can only be answered if the government has a coherent plan of what it wants to accomplish in the next six years.

The new president has a reputation for straight talk. In many ways, the articulation of a clear policy on gambling compels him to define more concretely how he intends to solve the long-term problems of the country.