Caracas - 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 colourful 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
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.
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
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."
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
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.