Notebook

August 13, 2012 7:44 pm

Animal game keeps Brazilians enthralled

A court case is focusing on Brazil’s dark political underbelly, writes Joe Leahy

The first time I came across jogo do bicho, or the animal game, was while watching the Brazilian police corruption movie, Tropa de Elite – or Elite Squad. Set in Rio de Janeiro, the film shows police using their captain’s motorbike to conduct the regular Friday collection of bribes from the local bicheiros, or operators of the illegal gambling game.

That was the last I heard of it until it shot into the headlines a few months ago with a police investigation into the man who is probably Brazil’s biggest bicheiro, Carlos Augusto Ramos, or Carlinhos Cachoeira as he is known, and his partner, Senator Demóstenes Torres.

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The court case of the “professor” (Mr Cachoeira) and the “doctor” (Mr Torres) has given Brazil something it loves best: a real life telenovela set in the dark underbelly of Brazilian politics.

Jogo do bicho began in the 19th century, so legend has it, when a Rio zoo began selling tickets with numbers and pictures of animals on them entitling the visitor to enter a lottery and win a prize. The idea was to boost zoo ticket sales. But local mafias quickly adapted it as a gambling racket for the masses.

Mr Cachoeira allegedly used Mr Torres as his point man in congress. In return, Mr Torres allegedly received a share of the takings. Mr Torres camouflaged the relationship in public by campaigning so loudly against state corruption that he was feted as a musqueteer of political ethics.

Yet, the federal police were on to him. In hundreds of calls intercepted between 2008 and 2011, investigators caught the lavish lives of Messrs Torres and Cachoeira on tape.

In one wire tap, recounted by magazine Piauí, Mr Torres asks Mr Cachoeira to help his wife import an $18,000 table from Argentina. In others, they discuss fine wines, on which they occasionally blew up to $3,500 a bottle.

Mr Torres, who had bariatric surgery on his gut to control his appetite for rich food, and his wife Flavia received $27,000 in home appliances from Mr Cachoeira for their wedding. When the politician was asked why he accepted such an expensive present, he responded it was impolite to ask the price of a gift. Yet until the scandal broke, no one except the police seemed to notice such extravagances. As one of Mr Cachoeira’s supporters said during his mother’s funeral this year: “If Carlinhos was not in jail, it would have been full of politicians, senators, governors and ministers of state here.”

More scandal

Just in case anyone was getting bored of the Cachoeira case, the supreme court last week started another graft trial, the so-called Mensalão scam, this one even bigger and involving the former government of ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The scandal, in which Mr Lula da Silva’s aides are accused of vote-buying in congress, took a turn when a judge accused the former president of asking him to delay the trial until after municipal elections in October.

Mr Lula da Silva has refused to comment. But whatever the truth, one wonders how, with all of these scandals and senate inquiries, do they get anything done in Brasília? ... Hold on a moment, they don’t get anything done, do they?

Gold for Silva

When President Dilma Rousseff attended the opening ceremony of London’s Olympic Games, she received a nasty surprise. There marching with the Brazilian flag alongside UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and a collection of other notables was one of her main critics, former environment minister and opposition politician Marina Silva.

Invited to march by the International Olympic Committee without the knowledge of the Brazilian government, Ms Silva drew a rebuke from Ms Rousseff’s sports minister, Aldo Rebelo, who accused the daughter of an Amazon rubber tapper who rose to become a senator of being a favourite with “European aristocracy” (odd choice of insult but as bad as it gets coming from a Brazilian communist).

Ms Rousseff would doubtless have been more satisfied with Rio’s presentation during London’s closing ceremony. There on display were all of the usual images of Brazil: carnival, samba and a jungle act. Clichéd yes, political no.

But one still wonders who Brazil will invite from the UK to march at its Olympics in 2016 – Ed Miliband, perhaps, if he is still British opposition leader?

joseph.leahy@ft.com

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