Corruption Case Exposes Influence of Brazilian Animal Game Boss

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The case against a Brazilian gambling boss known as “Carlinhos Cachoeira” has toppled a senator’s career, pulled an Olympic contract from one of the country’s biggest firms, and brought threats on prosecutors, suggesting the extent of the kingpin’s influence in society.

Marcio Thomaz Bastos, former Brazilian justice minister and current legal counsel of Carlos Augusto Ramos, more commonly known as “Carlinhos Cachoeira” (Charlie Waterfall), has filed a request with the Supreme Court, seeking the release of his client. Bastos cited the 120 days Cachoeira has spent in detention so far, asking the court to consider the welfare of the defendant’s three children, Jornal do Brasil reported.

Given the scale of his alleged offenses, Ramos’ fatherhood will likely not do much to get him off in the long term — in a blog post one former Rio de Janeiro state prosecutor compared Cachoeira to Michael Corleone, the “Godfather” of the eponymous gangster film. The kingpin rose to power running “jogo do bicho,” also known as the “animal game.”

The immensely popular gambling racket was invented in 1888 by a Rio de Janeiro zoo owner named João Batista. To support his struggling zoo, he sold tickets with different animals printed on them. At the end of each day, he would raise a flag with an picture of one of the animals on it, and those whose tickets matched won money. Not much has changed about the game itself since then, though its stewards have moved far from its humble origins, using the animal game to launder the proceeds of Rio’s criminal groups, as set out in a report by the Economist.

Cochoeria’s network was reportedly worth up to $15 million, laundered through dozens of front companies. To keep the lucrative criminal enterprise running smoothly, Cachoeira appears to have courted an extensive network of political and business contacts, which helps explain why his arrest and its fallout have captured Brazil’s attention for the last four months.

Cachoeira was arrested in February following a 15-month federal police operation to break up a massive gambling scheme. The operation centered on illegal gambling in Goias state, central Brazil, but following his arrest, the wide scope of Cachoeira’s influence became clear. According to a report by the Terra news website, on the day of Cachoeira’s arrest, his alleged links to Goias Senator Demostenes Torres began to emerge. The gambling boss (“bicheiro” in Portuguese) allegedly gave Torres a refrigerator for a wedding gift — and, on other occasions, a reported total of $1.7 million.

Days later, recordings were made public which apparently showed three Goias federal congressmen peddling favors for gifts from Cachoeira. A congressional inquiry into Cachoeira’s government ties was opened in April. For his part, Torres’ career appears to be over, as he awaits the final word on whether he will be sacked. Cachoeira, it seems, had much to offer politicians like Torres. In one case, he reportedly connected a radio broadcaster with Goias’ current governor, offering the journalist tens of thousands of dollars to help coordinate the governor’s campaign.

In addition to his deals with politicians, Cachoeira’s political connections made him a power broker in the private sector. He is suspected of working with the construction firm Delta, Brazil’s largest single recipient of federal funds in the past three years, according to a·report by the Direto de Brasilia news service. Cachoeira reportedly leveraged his vast network of political connections to help Delta use bribes to secure valuable construction contracts.

As a result of the case, Delta projects have been shut down throughout Brazil. The firm was forced to pull out of the renovation project for Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium, which is set to host the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. More recently, a municipality in São Paulo state suspended a $75 million project by a Delta-led consortium to build a park, pending investigations into potential irregularities, including the possibility the government may have overpaid for the project. Delta director Fernando Cavendish, a close friend of Rio Governor Sergio Cabral, was forced to step down.

The case has had more sinister consequences. Brazil’s National Council of Public Prosecution has opened an investigation into threats against one of its prosecutors who helped put Cachoeira behind bars. The prosecutor, according to a report by the G1 news service, received an e-mail this month with the word “Caution” in its subject line. “[Expletive], we will still get you. Watch out, you and your family are in danger,” the message read. Earlier this month, the judge who authorized Cachoeira’s detention asked to be removed from the congressional inquiry, citing threats by Goias police against himself and his family. His request was granted, threatening to delay the inquiry.

The Cachoeira case shows the reach of political corruption in Brazil. Business moguls, governors, legislators, journalists and police have all been linked to Cachoeira in one way or another, and the gambling kingpin was even reportedly involved in the 2004 “mensalao” corruption scandal that almost toppled the ruling Worker’s Party (PT). But the future of the case against the gambling boss is uncertain. While the investigation is likely to generate new political casualties, there are strong forces pushing to limit its fallout. As Julia Michaels at RioReal has noted, many of the country’s corruption cases simply fizzle out: “There’s a saying in Portuguese for what happens for what happens to any Brazilian investigation: vai acabar em pizza, ‘it all ends in pizza.'”

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