|In Prohibition era in the United States, Mexican casinos were the signature haunts of gangsters and shady characters looking for cheap and legal booze, loose women, cards and dice. But Mexico banished gambling by presidential decree in 1938, a ban that has stood to this day.|
Now, however, the economy is flat, tourism is in the doldrums, and President Vicente Fox sees casinos as a pragmatic way of turning the economy around.
Despite continued opposition from church leaders and law enforcers, analysts here said, the political and economic climate is right for the Mexican Congress to legalize casinos, possibly by the end of the year.
'A casino wouldn't be our salvation, but it would be the perfect complement to our development. It would be oxygen,' said Mayor Victor Guluarte, looking out over La Paz Bay to a spit of land where he envisions a casino anchoring a big development with hotels, restaurants and a marina.
More than 325,000 tourists, at least half of them Americans, came here last year. Guluarte's government estimates casinos could bring 100,000 more each year.
Guluarte said a casino, built with private capital, could create at least 1,000 badly needed jobs, develop the area and inject millions of much-needed dollars into the local economy for roads, schools, water and other infrastructural upgrades.
Guluarte isnít alone in seeing the business case for gambling:. Federal studies estimate that building a dozen casinos could bring in $200 million in new private investment and $500 million a year in new tax revenue. One recent privately commissioned study estimated that opening casinos could generate $3 billion a year in tourism and create almost 100,000 new jobs a year. Tourist industry associations have taken out full-page newspaper ads urging Mexico to take advantage of that opportunity.
'Mexico can be an attractive market,' said Jaime Mantecon, a federal legislator who favors casinos. 'We already have history, archaeology, nature and beaches. If we add gambling as a tourist attraction, more money would come into the country as a result.'
Mexico should prove attractive to Las Vegas casino operators such as MGM Mirage, Park Place Entertainment Corp, said Washington-based business consultant James R. Jones. Jones represents Sol Kerzner, a South African-born entrepreneur who owns casinos in the Bahamas and Connecticut and who developed the Sun City resort in apartheid-era South Africa.
'Anybody in the entertainment industry has to look at Mexico,' said Jones, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1993 to 1997.
Jones said there is so much interest in Mexico that he was invited to give a speech about the Mexican market at the American Gaming Summit, an industry trade show, earlier this year in Las Vegas.
However, opposition to casinos persists, and the lifting of the ban is far from a done deal. The Catholic Church has denounced casinos as immoral magnets for prostitution and illegal drug use. In a widely circulated paper on casinos, the church condemned them as contrary to the philosophy of 'earning one's bread with the sweat of one's own brow.'
Church officials have also said that corruption is a long-standing Mexican business tradition, and that casinos would be an ideal opportunity for bribery and kickbacks that public officials would not be able to resist.