Venezuelan inmates see rugby as a road to redemption

Caracas (AFP) –


In a lush valley west of Caracas, two teams of burly rugby players bolt onto a field like colts, cheers rising from a small crowd of onlookers.

The only jarring note in this bucolic scene -- surrounded by mountains, high trees and sugar plantations -- are the 100 National Guard soldiers deployed around the perimeter. Cradling their rifles, they eye the players cooly.

And for good reason. The tattooed men in colorful rugby jerseys with crests describing their teams as Jaguars, Hawks and Lions are violent gang members from some of Venezuela's toughest jails.

Playing rugby, a game that requires teamwork and controlled aggression, means a day out in fresh air, free from handcuffs and grimy incarceration.

It is also a game that requires discipline, and for these men, represents a step on the road to redemption.

The seven-a-side tournament is the brainchild of businessman Alberto Vollmer, head of the family-owned Hacienda Santa Teresa.

The sugar plantation and distillery, which produces some of the world's finest rum, also works to rehabilitate some of Venezuela's toughest convicted gang members.

Vollmer calls it Project Alcatraz.

- Redemption via Rugby -

The knot of relatives on the side of the pitch cheer on the players by name and try to get their attention by holding up signs.

Some weep to see their fathers, brothers, or husbands running out on the pitch, momentarily free.

Redemption is Vollmer's theme as his hacienda hosts 13 prison teams from around Venezuela at this tournament.

"What we have learned in Project Alcatraz is that it doesn't matter where you come from or that you had dark moments... because we have discovered that each individual has infinite potential," he says.

Some of the relatives are overcome by emotion, weeping when they see their men outside the confines of prison walls.

One of the excited onlookers is Yusbelis Torres, who waved a banner to encourage her two brothers who have spent the last five years behind bars for robbery.

"The rugby champions! We love you!" reads the banner, which includes family pictures.

The annual rugby tournament itself grew from a robbery, when Vollmer's hacienda was targeted by three youths in March 2003.

Far from seeking revenge, Vollmer -- who comes from a wealthy family with German roots -- made an unusual deal with the thieves: hand back what you stole, and either work on the farm or go to jail.

"It was a gentleman?s agreement," says Jesus Arrieta, a 37-year-old former gang member who started the project a decade ago with 20 other boys.

For three months, Arrieta and his companions in crime planted vines to mark out the boundaries of the hacienda. "That was how we learned how to earn money honestly," he recalls.

It was just the beginning. Slowly but deliberately the project grew and members of other gangs -- sworn enemies -- were incorporated into the project. It may have been a delicate dance in the beginning but now they fight for each other on the rugby pitch.

Before Project Alcatraz, named after the famous current-swept island prison in the San Francisco Bay, the destiny of many of the boys "was the cemetery," Arrieta says.

Now Arrieta, who is studying a university course in social communications, trains around 2,000 kids in the sport, "so that in 10 or 15 years' time, they won't end up falling into a life of crime."

- 'Precious stones' -

Torres's brothers play in Los Centinelas (The Sentinels), a team from the Luis Viloria prison in the northwestern state of Lara.

Sixty inmates died at that prison in a 2013 mutiny. Altogether, some 400 prisoners have died in violence in Venezuela's overcrowded prisons since 2011.

Vollmer, who calls almost all the prisoners by their name, pulls on his coaching gear and calls his team into a huddle on the pitch, closely watched by their armed guards. As the players listen closely he tells them they have to work on passing the ball.

A convict named Cristian tells Vollmer that the prisoners are "precious stones" in the rough that only require polishing.

Vollmer is inclined to concur. "I have yet to meet one that is irredeemable," he says, even after years of observing young men who have committed "very serious crimes."

Before the Alcatraz project, the homicide rate in the Revenga municipality, the agricultural zone surrounding Santa Teresa, was 112 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Ten years on crime rates have dropped 40 percent, a rare feat in a country where the homicide rate is 89 per 100,000 inhabitants -- 15 times higher than the global average, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence NGO.

Jorwim Contreras, who spent eight years behind bars in one of Venezuela's 76 prisons, credits rugby with liberating him.

"I exchanged my weapons for a rugby ball," says Contreras, who now coaches for the Alcatraz project.

Getting ready to run out onto the pitch is Andry Bolivar, a dark-haired 29-year-old who is determined to turn over a new leaf.

"I would like to integrate into society and, God willing, to play with Venezuela's national rugby team," he says.