Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Games that Kill

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 26 2011 (IPS) - Experts and activists are calling for the reinstatement of the ban on casinos in Mexico, saying they foment not only problem gambling but also links to organised crime. The debate was revived after at least 52 people were killed in a fire set by armed men in the Casino Royale in Monterrey.

“The best thing would be to close them down, because they are leading to serious cases of corruption,” former gambler Carlos del Moral, the founder of the Centro de Atención de Ludopatía y Crecimiento Integral (CALCI), a treatment centre for pathological gamblers, told IPS. “This is an extremely serious social problem. Casinos fuel addiction.”

The casino that was torched Thursday evening in the capital of the northeastern state of Nuevo León, lost in 2007 the permit to operate that it had been granted in 1992. However, it continued functioning under a court injunction, along with 11 other gaming businesses in Monterrey, the third-largest city in Mexico.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón decreed three days of national mourning starting Thursday, and lashed out at the U.S. government, demanding that it take effective measures to reduce drug consumption and curb sales of weapons to organised crime groups in Mexico.

Although the reason for the attack carried out by a group of eight or nine armed men is still unclear, authorities believe it may have been carried out in reprisal for the casino’s failure to pay off drug cartels that operate in the area.

The Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, two of the most powerful organised crime groups in Mexico, are fighting a turf war in Nuevo León, a key area along the route for smuggling drugs into the U.S. market – the world’s biggest consumer of drugs. A total of 57 gaming businesses operate in the state.

Casinos, which are frequent targets of attacks and extortion, could also be a channel for laundering drug money.

When Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) took office in December 2006, he put army troops on the street to help fight the drug trade. Since then, at least 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence, according to the weekly publication Zeta based in the northwest city of Tijuana.

The Asociación de Permisionarios de Juegos y Sorteos, which groups the companies that run gambling operations in Mexico, did not respond to requests for comment from IPS.

Addiction always wins out

Then president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) banned casinos in 1935, considering them potential hotbeds of corruption.

But the administration of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) allowed them to reopen their doors in 2005, to win favour – according to analysts – with Televisa, Mexico’s largest television network, which had requested permission to open more than 125 casinos.

Gaming parlours, which reported 890 million dollars in revenue in 2009, are governed by a 1947 federal law on gambling.

“The casinos have fomented addiction,” former gambler Javier González told IPS. “The problem is that the government grants permits even though appropriate legislation is not in place. There is no awareness of the problems gaming businesses can cause, there is no sense of social responsibility, like the information that is made available about tobacco and alcohol use.”

In 2007, González founded the Samadhi Centro de Tratamiento para el Juego Compulsivo, a rehabilitation centre for gamblers in the northern border city of Chihuahua where 192 people have been treated.

The interior ministry has issued 552 permits for casinos, although only 305 are operating. That brought the total to more than 70,000 electronic terminals and some 2,000 different games. But there could be up to 500 gaming venues operating illegally, according to Congress.

There are more than two million problem gamblers in this country of 112 million people, according to organisations set up to help them. Nevertheless, pathological gambling is not considered a public health problem in Mexico.

The American Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as “Persistent and recurrent maladaptive gambling behaviour that disrupts personal, family, or vocational pursuits.” The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder since 1992.

According to CALCI, only seven out of every 100 players win, the machines only return winnings equivalent to seven percent of total earnings, and at least 35 percent of problem gamblers commit crimes to pay off debts and feed their addiction.

“There is no one in the government working against problem gambling. And now there are online gambling sites, which have made things worse for people with this illness,” said del Moral, who quit betting in 2002 to set up his treatment centre, and is the author of the books “Juegos de azar” and “Bingo”, on gambling.

The National Council Against Addictions hot-line refers people to treatment centres and organisations that help gamblers recover.

The Comité de Atención a las Adicciones Naturales (addiction treatment committee) was set up this year in the state of Nuevo León, comprised of representatives of the state government, academia and social organisations, to help prevent problem gambling and strengthen treatment options. As a result of the attack on the Casino Royale, the committee’s influence is expected to grow.

But the state government’s response to the problem has been weak, said González, who called for awareness-raising campaigns, and said “civil society could be drawn into involvement in prevention efforts.”

After receiving treatment in the United States, González set up a Gamblers Anonymous group.

The Internet has become a virtually unregulated new tool for gamblers. In April, the U.S. government seized three of the biggest online poker sites doing business in the United States, and arrested several of their founders, who are facing charges of money laundering, bank fraud and tax evasion.

Meanwhile, at least seven online sites operate in Mexico, where there are no laws regulating them.

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