Mon, Dec 24, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Venezuelan inmates use rugby as penance


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 soldiers deployed around the perimeter.

Cradling their rifles, the soldiers have reason to eye the players coolly: 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 the fresh air and 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.

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.

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 said.

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 past five years behind bars for robbery.

The banner, which includes family pictures, reads: “The rugby champions! We love you!”

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: Return what you stole, and either work on the farm or go to jail.

“It was a gentleman’s agreement,” said Jesus Arrieta, a 37-year-old former gang member who started the project a decade ago with 20 other teenagers.

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 said.

It was just the beginning. Slowly but deliberately, the project grew and members of other gangs — sworn enemies — were incorporated into the project. It might 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 island prison in San Francisco Bay, the destiny of many of the teenagers “was the cemetery,” Arrieta said.

Arrieta, who is completing a university course in social communications, trains about 2,000 teens in the sport, “so that in 10 or 15 years’ time, they won’t end up falling into a life of crime.”

The brothers of Torres play on Los Centinelas, or The Sentinels, a team from the Luis Viloria Prison in the northwestern state of Lara.

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