JUETENG is like a stubborn stain on the Philippine body politic — it refuses to go away. The Inquirer’s recent revelation that a police officer had accused relatives of a high official, presumably the President herself, of receiving jueteng payoffs, is only the latest in a long, long line of political exposés linking officials to the illegal numbers game.
Over the years, the exposés have differed only in the names of the officials involved and the amounts of bribes that they had allegedly received. Joseph Estrada’s precipitous fall from power was set off by accusations that he was regularly receiving jueteng money in “black attaché cases.” The amounts, according to whistleblower Chavit Singson, involved P500 million in just a couple of years.
The recent accusation about Arroyo relatives involves similarly stupendous sums: P2 million monthly from just one region in Luzon, according to the police officer (whom we are told had an axe to grind, but then, so did Chavit). The irony could not be richer: The president who assumed power because her predecessor had been linked to jueteng herself being charged with complicity in the gambling underground.
But then, if Pinoy politics can be considered rich, it has always been in terms of irony — and also, tragedy. Jueteng, indeed, is the best metaphor for the persistence of corruption in this country and for the complicity not only of the most powerful, but also the poor and powerless, in an elaborate network of corruption where it seems everybody gains but everybody, in the end, also loses.
The PCIJ has documented jueteng, first in a three-part report published in 1995 that examined jueteng in a Pangasinan town. Ramos, too, was complicit in jueteng, if only because he allowed it to go on, even in his own province. He was, after all, a former police official, and if jueteng thrives, it is only because of police protection. Cory, too, was not spared from the jueteng taint, as her relatives in Tarlac were alleged to be providing protection to the game.
The PCIJ series lists how much police and other officials get from jueteng profits. But it also explains that jueteng’s lure is that it takes place in the realm of the familiar. Those who take part in it know each other by name and by face. The game also plays on Pinoy notions of malas and suerte. It is woven into the tapestry of local culture and folk belief.
A more recent report, published in late 2000 at the height of the Estrada crisis, explains: “Joseph Estrada should not be blamed for thinking that he could get away with being the lord of all jueteng lords. The milieu from which he sprung is old style, small-town Pinoy politics where the mayor is boss and takes a cut from a variety of illicit activities in his area, whether it is smuggling, gambling or illegal logging. In this milieu, the mayor and the police, which is under his control, provide protection for illegal activities, ensuring that the syndicates are able to operate. Hardly ever is anyone called to account. The operative word is impunity. Everyone knows, but no one is caught.”
Jueteng provides the most advanced form of this network of complicity. We all know this. That is why the Inquirer could not resist a headline that takes place in the very heart of the realm of the familiar — never mind if its report is based on one unnamed source accusing unnamed relatives of an unnamed high official, who was later revealed, in typical newspaper strip tease, as no one else but GMA. Same story, different faces. The fact that the president comes from Lubao, the hometown of jueteng lord Bong Pineda, and has been linked politically to the Pineda family does not help. (The elusive Bong was also associated with Erap and was summoned to testify at Estrada’s impeachment trial. He never showed up, saying he was in the U.S. for a hair transplant.)
Our fearless forecast for the ending of this story? As we wrote in 2000: “The operative word is impunity. Everyone knows, but no one is caught.”