South American gambling market is thriving: more and more countries on this continent are legalizing all forms of gambling, including land-based, online and sports betting.
Let’s look at the history, present and future of South American gambling market legislation, diversity and general offerings.
Is Gambling Legal in South America?
The gambling laws of South America are as diverse as the continent’s countries and cultures.
South America is home to more than 410 million people, making it home to over 307 million players based on the standard demographic rate, which indicates that roughly 75% of a population is over 18 years of age.
However, since about half of South America’s residents live in Brazil – a traditionally hostile to gambling of any kind – many prospective players are forced to cross borders to gamble. In addition, there are dozens of different states and districts in South America, each with its gambling laws and regulations, which can make determining the legality of gambling difficult.
Gambling is a part of every culture on earth in some shape or form. Taking part in cooperative contests like poker and dominoes with stakes on the line and wagering on the outcome of athletic contests and animal races all constitute gambling. Games of chance and skill are often played in secret, well away from the prying eyes of authorities, with communities tacitly allowing them to take place.
The same holds for South America, as every city, town, and township in the continent is home to gambling in some form or another. But, unfortunately, South America is notoriously behind the times when it comes to gambling laws, relying on outdated standards created under colonial rule – or post-colonial power grabs.
The proliferation of online gambling has done much to expand the industry’s reach and scope well beyond brick and mortar casinos, making these outdated laws even more problematic. For example, residents of South American countries have access to the internet, smartphones and sports betting – despite local laws prohibiting such activities – making them readily accessible to casino gaming, sports betting, lottery, and bingo.
South American governments have responded by legalizing, regulating, and taxing the gambling industry, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. In addition, the United States government passed a law prohibiting the public use of online gambling platforms in 2006 in response to the proliferation of online gambling.
In several countries, including Argentina and Uruguay, gambling laws are being introduced as part of a movement to curb the adverse effects of illegal gambling and boost the local economy. The gambling industries of countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, on the other hand, cling to edicts issued 100 years ago, often by religiously motivated rulers, resulting in a state of chaos throughout their nations. Finally, nations like Brazil are trying to bridge the gap between progressive and conservative lawmakers, with progressives seeking to modernize the law with conservatives rejecting change.
Across its 12 sovereign nations, South America’s gambling laws are diverse and complex. Still, the guide below outlines what has shaped each government’s stance on the subject over time, as well as the most recent legislation on the horizon.
As we move into the 21st century, Colombia is poised to rebound from the problems that plagued the country during the latter half of the 20th century.
Colombia is emerging from the shadow of Pablo Escobar and his infamous escapades, thanks to progress being made in the fight to end decades of revolutionary conflict among armed militia groups like the FARC.
The gambling industry has emerged due to Law 643, a law passed in 2001 seeking to regulate it more. As a result, according to studies, 61 percent of Colombians who are adults place wagers of some kind regularly. However, gambling was almost entirely regulated by those in the underworld before 2001, including the same paramilitary organizations that ravaged Colombians for generations.
The Colombian government had restructured 10 years earlier under a new constitution formulated in 1991. This resulted in Law 643 organizing the scattered and unsupervised casinos, bingo halls, and slot parlors in Colombia. As a result of the new rules, Columbia’s health ministry, the Empresa Territorial Para la Salud, saw a more than 500 percent increase in gambling-based tax revenue.
Illicit gambling, however, was still widespread by 2008. The Colombian government has estimated that illegal bets make up 20 percent of the overall market in Colombia, while 20,000 of the country’s 65,000 slot machines are unlicensed. Alvaro Uribe, then-president of Colombia, was outraged by the drain of tax revenue from an economy slowly returning to health.
ETESA awarded 10 new gaming licenses by 2009, extended operations at nine more locations, and renewed 22 contracts of existing gambling enterprises. As a result, Colombia soon became South America’s second-largest casino market after Argentina. Numerous casinos can be found in Bogota, Cartagena, and San Andrés.
The then-president Uribe disbanded the ETESA agency in 2012 following a series of corruption scandals, but Coljuegos was created to replace the agency. Coljuegos, the newly formed gaming board, went to work immediately dismantling illegal gambling rings, including the proliferation of slot machines in neighborhoods all over the country.
As a result of Coljuegos’ dedicated efforts, today, Colombia’s government estimates that there are over 3,200 slot parlors, bingo halls, and full-fledged casinos in the country. In addition, 384 licensed operators operate over 83,558 individual slot machines. Slot machines are Colombians’ favorite games, with more than 9 times as many Colombians playing one-armed bandits as any other kind. Therefore, Colombia’s mandatory for all slot machines to be connected to a central government server to ensure that the games are fair.
During the industry’s heyday, horseracing created 40,000 jobs in Colombia, but changing tastes and higher taxes have forced many racetracks to close. Although recent government reforms aim to stimulate the horseracing sector, they have had a positive impact.
Unlike International Game Technology (IGT), the Spanish company Corredor Empresarial SA prevailed in a bidding process against the global powerhouse to operate Coljuegos’ new pari-mutuel sports betting platform. As a result, there are currently no wagers allowed in Colombia. Still, government officials recognize that an open system has tax benefits shortly, and this restriction is expected to end soon.
Brazil is often called a sleeping giant – a country that needs to wake up – since Latin America’s the biggest and most populous country. As of now, gambling is prohibited almost everywhere, but in 2016, a special commission was established to develop regulations for the sports betting sector. In 2018, gambling legislation was passed, but the scheme has yet to be implemented.
Over 600 gaming companies contributed nearly 2000 suggestions to the legislative process. As a result, sports betting will ultimately be privatized, state governments will run lotteries, and jockey clubs will offer horseracing betting. As a result, by the middle of 2021, the much-anticipated new regulations will be affected.
Brazil will be home to the largest market for land-based and online sports betting on the continent following the new regulations. Brazilians are passionate about sports, particularly football, and have access to mobile technology in large numbers, making this country a paradise for sportsbook operators looking to enter South America.
For land-based retail shops, the licensing fee is R$3 million ($560,000), with a monthly fee of R$20,000 ($3700). A sportsbook’s monthly fee will be R$30,000 ($5600) if it operates exclusively online, and R$45,000 ($8400) if it operates both online and retail.
Brazil, whose sports betting market is expected to reach over $1 billion within five years of getting regulated, has been on the radar of the entire iGaming industry.
Due to the lack of federal legislation governing casino gambling in Argentina, the industry is governed at the provincial level.
There have been no major problems in Argentina concerning gambling, from horse racing and local lotteries to casinos and even lotteries.
According to a report published by Clarion Gaming, Argentinean slat parlors, racetracks, and casinos numbered 80 in 2007. As of today, that number has more than doubled to 157.
The gambling market in Argentina is thriving, and casino games and horseracing are legal in most provinces. The Casino de Trilenium, one of only three casinos in the entire city, is the largest casino in South America, located in Buenos Aires.
Because Buenos Aires is an autonomous city, casinos are technically prohibited. The City of Trilenium (also known as Casino de Tigre) is the only casino connected to a horseracing track. However, it is located on two “floating” casinos moored in the harbor.
The shiny glass tower that houses the legendary Trilenium Casino includes 180,000 square feet of gaming space that wouldn’t look out of place on the Las Vegas Strip. Players can enjoy the venue’s 1,975 table games and slot machines, which makes it one of the most popular destinations on the continent for gamblers.
The province of the same name is home to four other horseracing venues, including the world-famous Palermo Racetrack in Buenos Aires, which was opened in 1876. Two of the most prominent are San Isidro and La Plata, and three others are Tandil, Azul, and Dolores.
There are few brick-and-mortar sportsbooks in Argentina, so punters rely on offshore sportsbooks. But, of course, these fall into the category of “less than legal,” much the same as in the US, so their popularity isn’t as high as in European countries and Australia.
In 2006, Formoapuesta launched an online sportsbook and generated $100K in wagers in its first month. However, licensing issues led to its closure shortly after that.
Argentina has a huge bingo industry, with provinces allowing massive bingo halls and slot parlors. Since Codere has more than 5,200 slot machines in bingo parlors, it is the industry leader.
Besides its odd shape and mountainous coastline, Chile has one of the most progressive gambling laws in South America.
In 2005, seven casinos formed a lucrative industry worth USD 85 million each year. Chile had a flourishing casino industry for several decades before the proposed reforms in 1999 under president Eduardo Frei when he proposed sweeping reforms designed to modernize regulation and distribute tax revenues more fairly.
Frei’s legislation took six years to pass, but when it did, Act # 19.995 stood for creating an independent gaming commission known as the Superintendency of Gaming Casinos (SCJ). As a result of the SCJ’s action, 18 new licenses were issued, and casino operators were invited to apply, thereby launching the online gambling boom that Chile has today.
The 15-year licenses were only offered to those companies that could demonstrate that their casinos would boost tourism in nearby areas. Today, visitors choose dozens of casino resorts, including those in Valparaiso, Arica, Vila del Mar, and the capital of Santiago.
In each case, the newly built or renovated casinos after the 2005 law were among the best in their field, complete with five-star hotels, conference centers, restaurants, and shopping malls.
SCJ released figures in January of 2015 showing that gross gaming income across the 16 casinos licensed under the law of 2005 had reached over USD 38 million. In addition, the SCJ conducted additional studies that revealed casino gaming revenue increased by 14.3 percent from 2014 to 2015.
The seven previously existing casinos were also the target of a successful political campaign in 2015, led by leaders from the cities and towns where they are located. To ensure that their venues would benefit from the licensing procedures, these parties sought to ensure that their venues could participate in the licensing process. As a result, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, signed an extension into law for the seven municipal casinos in 2015. The extension will last until December of 2017.
The proliferation of illicit slot parlors poses a legal problem for Chile’s gambling industry. Despite the 2005 law, slot machines are not permitted to be played outside of a licensed casino, and many individuals circumvent this law. Approximately 150,000 illegal slot machines are believed to be in parlors. Another 50,000 are believed to be in convenience stores, hotels, and other establishments.
Racing horses is a popular pastime in Chile, and two of the country’s eight racetracks are located in the capital, the Hip*dromo Chile and the Club H*pico de Santiago.
In Chile, bingo is a growing game, with bingo halls and casinos offering more than 2,000 seats a day.
Chilean citizens wager an estimated USD 12 million through offshore providers each year, despite a 2005 law that explicitly prohibits online gambling. As of now, Chile’s laws regarding online gambling are similar to those of California. There are several offshore online casinos that players in the country use to place bets and play games, which has not escaped the attention of government officials, who are keen to keep that money “in house” for tax purposes. However, Chile – like California – has not yet overcome the logistical hurdles needed to pass concrete legislation despite the momentum for legislation.
Paraguay gained its independence from Spain in 1811 due to its landlocked status.
Paraguay’s economic and social growth was stifled by a succession of increasingly isolationist dictatorships for the next century. More than half of the country’s population died during a ruinous war between 1864 and 1870, and one-quarter of the country’s landmass was forfeited to Argentina and Brazil.
In 1993, Paraguay’s first democratic elections were held after more than 120 years of military dictatorship. A regional economic partnership, Mercosur was founded by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay one year later.
In 1997, the country passed a federal statute known as Law No. 1016 to stimulate economic growth. As part of law 1016, the Commission National of Games of Chance (CONAJZAR) was created to oversee all forms of gambling, such as casinos, table games, slots, video poker, racing, sports betting, lotteries, games of chance, and advertisements.
Paraguay has 17 administrative departments, similar to states or provinces. Casinos, however, can only be found in Asuncion, the country’s capital, and the six departments with more than 250,000 residents (Central, San Pedro, Caaguaza, Itapia, Alto Paraná, and Cordillera).
The Paraguayan economy has struggled to develop this segment for nearly two decades to attract major industry players. This is unlike what Guyana was able to accomplish with Princess. Conjugal’s competitive bidding process for building five-star hotels in Paraguay was designed to attract the industry’s best performers. However, the process has created multiple scandals involving government corruption.
It was reported in 2015 that CONAJZAR had generated USD 18 million in tax revenue from gaming for the year 2015, reaching a five-year high. To receive 30 percent of this money, the Department of Social Welfare and Assistance must raise 30 percent, the Department of State must rise 30 percent, the department of municipal development must raise 30 percent, and the Treasury Department must raise 10 percent.
It was announced in 2014 that Hard Rock International would open an additional casino in Ciudad del Este, the capital of the Alto Paraná Department. It is estimated that the casino will cost USD 70 million to construct and will have 500 slot machines, 30 gaming tables, and 250 rooms. The National Ports Authority Building approved the construction of the casino.
Asuncion, the capital district of Paraguay, is home to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the Jockey Club del Paraguay, the country’s only legal horseracing track, and an associated sportsbook. However, only a few of these establishments in Paraguay make up just 1 percent of the country’s overall gambling market.
Paraguay’s younger generation has lost interest in bingo, once the country’s most popular game of chance.
At present, no laws are in force regarding online gambling, but the federal government and CONAJZAR have announced their intention to pass regulations soon.
In terms of certain metrics such as democratic participation, freedom of the press, middle-class growth, overall prosperity, and the absence of government corruption, Venezuela has long been considered a pinnacle of the continent’s potential.
There has been a casual acceptance of community-wide gambling and casinos in Uruguay for the last 100 years. But, in contrast to the struggles of other South American countries, Uruguayans shrugged their collective shoulders and accepted the industry.
Casino Carrasco and Spa Hotel are some of the oldest casinos in the Americas. It has been open since 1921 — one of the oldest in the world. In addition, Uruguay has several casinos located throughout the country, making it one of the continent’s most welcoming gaming destinations.
Uruguay’s casinos were under state control by the 1950s – a change that usually portends doom for the industry. Although Uruguayan gambling appears to be sustainable, the government managed to keep it that way until 1984, when a democratically elected government and Constitution were implemented.
The government introduced the mixed system in 1996 as a novel system of shared responsibility. Private businesses were granted licenses under the mixed system, and there were no limitations on the number of games they could offer. Under the mixed system, 35 to 45 percent of profits are diverted to the state coffers in exchange for letting owners run their businesses without government interference.
Uruguay’s mixed system only requires companies to supply equipment, furnish casino spaces, and supervise logistics such as security and promotion.
While governments and businesses aligning is anathema in purely capitalist democracies, Uruguay’s mixed system has shown to be very successful. For example, in 2012, several casinos across the nation generated USD 100 million in tax revenue, and state governments owned several others.
The Hotel Casino Carrasco underwent a USD$70 million renovation and enhancement program in the same year.
Casino control board statistics indicate that gross gaming receipts in Uruguay increased by seven percent to USD 212.7 million in 2015 – up from USD 207.3 million the previous year. Over the same time frame, slot machines generated a net income of $36.5 million, 9.5 percent higher than in 2014.
El Hipodromo Nacional de Marocas racetrack in Montevideo has been hosting horse racing since 1847, and wagering has taken place since then. Both Las Piedras Racetrack and the nearby Codere casino are supervised by the same company, which hosts a casino on site.
Government officials have been debating online gambling since 2008, but like many US states are discovering, creating a regulatory framework for internet-based casinos and poker rooms is extremely difficult. There is no law unequivocally prohibiting or permitting online gambling in the country as of today, so it is considered a “gray area.”
As has been the case for many countries on the continent, the history of Peru has been shaped by the lasting effects of Spanish colonial rule, which ended in the early 19th century after more than 300 years. As a result, the country has alternated between oligarchy and democracy over the years, shifting from one to the other.
Since the fall of the regime of President Alberto Fujimori in 2000, the country’s representative democracy has become one of the most advanced in South America.
Fujimori will be remembered by history for consolidating power, dissolving Congress, and ordering mass murders of political opponents, but Peruvian gamblers can thank him for allowing casinos to operate. To update arcane laws about activities such as slot machine play, lotteries, and bingo, the country passed a gambling act in 1994.
The gaming act in Peru immediately floundered as Fujimori’s regime was more adept at suppressing dissent than crafting effective laws. As of 2004, the newly elected democratic government issued a study showing that 63,000 slot machines were operating in the country – with only five percent of those machines being registered with the regulator.
As a result of concerns that unauthorized and unregulated gambling had reached epidemic proportions, Alejandro Toledo’s government made a decree giving slot parlors a time frame to comply with licensing provisions and inspections. In response to this order’s complete disregard, the government instructed police to conduct raids on violators, such as those offering slots in school zones or supermarkets. Over 500 unlicensed slot machines were seized during the raids, and they were destroyed in a public show of force to discourage further breaches.
During 2006, Peruvian judicial stays were no longer possible, allowing unlicensed slot parlor owners to operate perpetually despite raids. In addition, it allowed the Toledo administration to pass the “Reordering and Formalization of Casino and Slot Machines Law,” which mandated that all gambling establishments register with the Department of Foreign Trade and Tourism (MINCETUR) by January 1, 2007, or face closure.
Over 600 applications were received in the intervening months, giving Peru a new well-regulated casino and slot machine play era. Gambling in Peru today provides revenue for a variety of services and institutions, such as 30 percent to local governments where the gambling occurs, 30 percent to the regional government, 15 percent to sports programs, 15 percent to the public treasury, and 15 percent to the Department of Foreign Trade and Tourism.
Four casinos operate in Lima, the capital city, operated by the Chinese company Dream, and several casinos in Chile. Over the next decade, the casino industry in Peru will continue to receive international investment as it transforms its dilapidated slot parlors and casinos into a thriving economic engine.
In Peru, horseracing is held at two different tracks, the Hip*dromo de Porongoche in Arequipa and the Hip*dromo de Monterrico in Lima. Aside from the off-track betting parlors, Peru has over 100 places where horseracing wagers can be made remotely.
Peru has issued licenses to several reputable companies, including Betsson of Sweden, one of the first South American countries to license regulated online gambling companies. Betting on local football leagues is available on the Betsson Peru platform.
Director-General of the Peruvian Gaming Control Board Manuel San Román Benavente announced in June 2015 that he intends to explore the full legalization of all online gambling, including casino games.