Jueteng: ‘Opium’ of the Filipino masses

By Yeoh En-Lai, The Straits Times, 1 January 2001

YEOH EN-LAI of the Foreign Desk looks at the illegal gambling game in the Philippines

JUETENG, an illegal gambling game, has long been the opium of the masses in the Philippines.

Recently, it has also hogged the limelight because of the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada.

Mr Estrada was accused by former friend and Ilocos Sur governor Luis Singson of accepting illegal funds from the game in October, the same month Mr Singson surfaced with his allegations.

But despite the presidential order for a crackdown on the illegal numbers game, checks by The Straits Times showed that the game was alive and thriving in many different ways.

Operators have gone underground, sometimes even operating from the back of a truck or in different households for every draw.

And some operators are now just thinking up the two numbers drawn, without actually drawing a ball.

If there is a draw at the back of a jeep, it's just the people collecting the money who wait around. When the jeep arrives, the numbers are drawn and then everyone disperses for the distribution, said one operator.

No one buying the numbers is there.

The game has also made use of technology, as some operators use faxes or send text messages to announce the winning numbers.

The minimum bet for jueteng is 25 centavos (less than one Singapore cent), and two balls from one to 37 are drawn for the winning number. There are usually three draws per day, with bets placed the day before.

I don't even conduct a draw anymore. I just think up a number without knowing which numbers are popular, said Quezon City jueteng lord Domingo de Leon.

When the number is drawn or thought up, operators usually take just under half an hour to tally up the winnings and pass it on.

The paper trail is then destroyed. I know there are some who fax or send text messages for the winning numbers, said Mr de Leon.

Some people are scared but for many households that my workers collect from, it is the only hope out of poverty. Most of the people live in depressed areas, he added.

Mr de Leon said there was a very strict hierarchy in jueteng society.

He alone controls more than 90 bet collectors or kobradors who report to the 16 kabos under him.

Kabos look after the bets collected by the kobradors, and pass the winnings back to the kobradors for distribution.

Those above the kobradors and kabos are the management, and then a banker, who controls the finances of the operation.

Mr de Leon estimates that he paid out around 50 million pesos ($1.78 million) for winnings last year from an annual collection of more than 270 million pesos.

This includes the commission for both the kobradors and the kabos, who take home a percentage of the total collection and around 15 per cent of a winning ticket.

While many people play jueteng, kobradors face a huge risk whenever they go out to collect bets.

Those interviewed said whenever local police conduct raids, they are always after the money.

It is a risk, but I know that all they want is the money. They are not out to eliminate the game, said 87-year-old kobrador Alexandria de Paras in Tagalog.

Madam de Paras has a set pattern whenever she heads out for a collection: There are no names written on her sheet, just the bet and the numbers.

Jueteng was introduced by the Spaniards in the 1800s, and in the early 1900s, it was controlled by the migrant Chinese population before the local population took over.

Taking the Straits Times team on a tour of his neighbourhood, Mr de Leon said that there was no competition among jueteng operators as their areas of control are clearly defined.

It is easy to avoid detection. And even if the kabos or the kobradors are caught, they know to just hand over the money and not say anything else, he added.

Then we change the way we play.