Russian bingo in Bolivia

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MARCO WERMAN: The Russian government today denied a report that it plans to delay loan repayments of up to $400 billion dollars. The money in question is Russian corporate debt owed to foreign banks. Some European markets weren't convinced by the Kremlin's denial. Many fear that the Russian economy is in tailspin. Not that this is stopping the Russian government from striking up deals with small countries ? countries that are often unfriendly to the United States. In Latin America, the Kremlin is discussing new military deals with Cuba and Venezuela. And in Bolivia, Russia's state oil company has promised to invest billions. Here's another Russian investment in Bolivia: bingo. A Russian company has opened 15 casino clubs across Bolivia. As Annie Murphy reports, some Bolivians are worried about these new enterprises.

ANNIE MURPHY: The clubs are called Bingo Bahiti, and Bingo seems to be the main attraction. Since moving to Santa Cruz four years ago, 71-year-old Eloisa Montealegre comes here every day between 4 and 6 p.m. to play Bingo. She says, ?Bolivia is a good place to live and Bahiti is a good place to gamble.? Here at the flagship in Santa Cruz, you can also play slot machines, try computerized blackjack with complimentary vodka, or just take the kids out for a Sunday afternoon. According to the President of Bingo Bahiti in Bolivia, Jose Maria Penarama, he and his Russian business partners want this to be a casino for the whole family.

JOSE MARIA PENARAMA: You have a restaurant; you have the machines, and the bingo. People ? they come to the restaurant to do the lunch with the family, with kids, with everybody.

MURPHY: Bingo Bahiti has a direct contract with the Bolivian government. But as more foreigners arrive from places like Russia and Brazil to invest in casinos, some people in Santa Cruz wonder if there's a darker side to the gambling boom. While car dealerships, construction projects, and casinos flourish, the crime rate in this once sleepy backwater is also growing. Hector Cornejo is the District Attorney responsible for casino-related cases.

HECTOR CORNEJO: Basically, Santa Cruz has become a little Las Vegas, and foreign capital ? mostly from Russia and Brazil, is flowing in from mafias and other people tied to illegal activities like money laundering.

MURPHY: Raymond Baker is a Fellow at The Center for International Policy in Washington, and follows illegal money flows. He described how casinos are used to launder money.

RAYMOND BAKER: Bring some money in, usually cash; buy a lot of chips, go gamble a little bit, then you turn your chips in for a casino check. That check you can then deposit anywhere you want to.

MURPHY: This country of 9 million is the poorest in South America, and its gambling laws date back to the 1920s. Combine that with a weak legal system and a thriving cocaine industry, and District Attorney Cornejo says you have ideal conditions for illegal activities.

CORNEJO: I believe it's foreign interests looking for unregulated paradises, and it's gotten out of control. It's a secret everyone knows about and no one discusses. Everything is related: casinos, arms, narcotrafficking, fraud, mafias, human trafficking. Now, you have dead people turning up daily. If it continues, this is going to become a no-man's land.

MURPHY: But for now, live bingo ? the game played in church basements across the US, continues to draw players to Bingo Bahiti and other Russian-owned casinos. The prizes are a little better. On a recent Friday night, they were giving out a vacuum cleaner and a cooking stove. For The World, this is Annie Murphy, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

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