A Bad Risk

Dice are thrown the best
when there is no bet.

Spanish proverb

As the country enters the fifth year of the Fox government, the authorities led by the various individuals and corporations who will most benefit should casinos become legal in Mexico, are promoting their legalization. The principal argument in favor of the casinos is that legalized gambling will bring a substantial increase of foreign tourists and exchange into the country. The promoters of the casinos insist that the creation of what are euphemistically termed “play centers” in Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juarez, Cancun, Matamoros, Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco will attract 7.5 million more tourists annually, and a direct investment of 1, 500,000 pesos. This is reminiscent of the attempt to attract six million nautical tourists through the (now scaled back) Escalera Nautica project. Among the cited benefits of opening casinos is the creation of thousands of jobs and a lot of income. On the assumption that gambling exists in Mexico, the advantages of regulation, and consequent supervision and control are emphasized. By stressing the supposed advantages, possible – and most probable – social costs are minimized. These include an increase in public insecurity, drug consumption, prostitution, firearms and money laundering. One academic from the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas went so far as to say that ” the country cannot stand aside from the economic benefits that will come with well regulated and supervised gambling houses”.

We (I use the plural form since I was one of the intellectuals, academics, businessmen and politicians who, last August 19, signed a letter entitled: “Casinos, an Opportunity or a Mistake”, in which we insisted upon a serious, impartial and multi-disciplinary study of the matter before the “Federal Gaming Law of Betting and Lotteries comes up for a vote in Congress) are not totally convinced of the benefits of the gambling industry for our country, and for this reason we ask for a thorough investigation that goes to the heart of the matter. It is not for puritanical reasons that we question the wisdom of opening casinos. Firstly, there is an assumption that most of the gamblers will be Mexican. What brings tourism to gambling cities like Las Vegas, or Atlantic City or Monte Carlo, are the carefully researched package tours aimed at the desired market. In Las Vegas, hotels offer imitations of Venice, Imperial Rome, the Italian Renaissance, the Egyptian pyramids, Paris, and even the Eiffel Tower. The purpose is to allow these auras to shroud the gambling ambience and place the potential player in a world outside reality, his own reality, where the rules that normally govern his or her social conduct no longer apply. This allows him or her to feel free to behave as “another person”. Several studies have shown that gambling becomes an addiction for between 1.5% and 2.5% of those who indulge, causing neuro-chemical changes in the brain (H, Schaffer, University of Harvard among others). A classic novel dealing with this theme is The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the United States the rate of gambling addiction among adolescents is estimated to run between 4% and 8%. The rates of addiction double when there is a casino within 80 kilometers of the area researched. A casino within 16 kilometers of a house increases the risk to 90% that its inhabitants will become gamblers. When they succumb to addiction, gamblers lose their money and become bankrupt, thereby increasing divorce, family disintegration and often, even suicide. In the United States there are gamblers on voluntary lists who ask the casinos to help them by not letting them play. An Australian statistic states that in 1999 the gambling industry produced $3,200,000 of which $2,900,000 went to treat addicts and the consequences of their addiction. The risks to public safety are multiple. In Atlantic City, where according to criminologist Rafael Ruiz Harrell, “the casinos are well regulated, the government is resident at the casino and the commissioner makes regulatory decisions”, (Reforma, 30/10/04) after the casinos had been operating for three years, overall crime had tripled, and the index for criminals per head of the population had gone from fiftieth place to first. Traditionally, and correctly, casinos have been associated with money laundering, prostitution, drug trafficking, and the corruption of public officials.

When it comes to gambling everybody knows that the house wins regardless of who plays. Therefore, if the principal investors are foreigners – logical since they have the most experience – most of the profits will leave the country. As for job creation, casinos usually take business away from the other restaurants, hotels and places of entertainment within a radius of 55 to 80 kilometers, resulting in jobs lost for those places. By attracting money that would otherwise go elsewhere, they undermine stores in the area.

It has been asked whether, if casinos had been legal in Mexico, would Gustavo Ponce, former treasurer of the Federal District and now a silent captive in La Palma prison, have remained in the country to throw away the millions of pesos he wagered at the Bellagio Hotel in Nevada, or at any rate would he not have been more discrete? And if profit is the issue, then following the logic that if something already exists in the country it should be regulated, why not legalize drugs, taxing both the product and the service? Its centers of activity largely coincide with the places suggested for casinos, and this too would create jobs.

For those investors seeking opportunities, why do they not get together for the project suggested in this newspaper by Horacio Marchand; that is to build in Las Vegas a mega casino-hotel shaped like the Pyramid of the Sun, with a replica of the Aztec calendar on the summit? (Reforma, 05/11/04). In Marchand’s plan there would be restaurants offering the best of regional dishes, a beer and tequila cantina, a coffee shop supporting our neglected coffee growers, shows displaying the popular culture, sales of artifacts, archeological exhibitions and an artificial beach with everything, including a temple like the one at Tulum? And why not a ball court? The Mexican government as franchise holder would receive a healthy percentage of the profits, and those gambling empressarios who want to plant themselves in Mexican territory would have the opportunity to enrich themselves even more. The publicity attracting tourists would be huge, and we would be spared the negative consequences of opening Mexico up to gambling.

But as Manuel Arango, a businessman, strong supporter of the environment, and a signer of the above-mentioned letter, says: “We are proposing a thorough analysis before a measure is taken that could have enormous consequences for the country.” (Reforma, 27/10/04) If Mexico has lived without gambling since Lazaro Cardenas banned it in 1938, why so much haste to establish and promote a business that feeds off pain and loss, and spreads like a contagious disease? Meanwhile, if the government approves the establishment of casinos in the country without conducting a profound analysis of the ensuing consequences that will be a bad gamble on our society.