In Venezuela, the worsening economy has led to soaring gang violence. Some gang members end up in prison, and face grim prospects when they’re released.
But a new program is teaching some young offenders how to turn their lives around — through the discipline of sports.
CGTN’s Juan Carlos Lamas has details on “Project Alcatraz.”
Hacienda Santa Teresa has been using its own formula to turn sugar cane and molasses into rum for two hundred years. Now it’s using rugby to help turn youthful offenders into community leaders.
It started 15 years ago when Jose Arrieta and his gang staged an armed robbery at the distillery. Instead of pressing charges, the family-owned distillery offered them jobs and positions on the company rugby team. The only condition — to leave their criminal lives behind.
” It was a slow process to change our behavior,” said former gang member and current team coach, Jose Arrieta. “It wasn’t just rugby — they brought psychologists and life coaches in. They trusted us and helped us change our lives for good.”
Hacienda Santa Teresa created Project Alcatraz — a foundation to help gang members and other youthful offenders in Venezuela.
“Here we are helping these guys transform their lives,” said Hacienda Santa Teresa’s director, Enrique Vollmer. “They look forward to this tournament. The guys from the prisons — they work very hard all year round in the prisons to be able to come here for one day and have a taste of that freedom.”
Thirteen prison teams from across the country are participating in the tournament this year at Santa Teresa. Many of the players said they’ve found a second chance through rugby. Program officials said Project Alcatraz has had a direct role in breaking up nine criminal youth gangs. People in the community agree that the number of murders are down, thanks to this project.
Prisoners said it’s not just a game. They said rugby has helped them learn life lessons about working hard, setting goals, and then cooperating with teammates to achieve them.
“It is a lifetime opportunity to be here,” said player and prisoner Aaron Zerpa. “Most of us would have been buried at the cemetery if it wasn’t for this. I’m grateful to be alive and playing.”
This year, the team from Tocoron prison were the champions. Win or lose, players from all 13 prisons said the program has given their lives new purpose. They’re looking forward to putting the lessons learned on the pitch into practice outside the prison.