Latin America & Caribbean

Rugby rehab in Venezuela

Alberto Vollmer coaching the Tocoron rugby team Image copyright Santa Teresa
Image caption Alberto Vollmer (in white shirt) thinks rugby helps instil values in people who have gone off the rails

How do you make rum in Venezuela when your factory is surrounded by a brutal gang war?

"You make the thugs play rugby," says Alberto Vollmer, the CEO of Santa Teresa, Venezuela's most prestigious rum company.

"Rugby is a contact and a team sport that allows you to efficiently teach values like respect, discipline and teamwork," he tells the BBC.

Mr Vollmer, a Venezuelan of German origin, should, on paper, not be very popular with the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro

He comes from money, owns land and profits from it.

However, his Project Alcatraz, which reintegrates criminals into society through rugby, has made him popular not only with the local community but with the government, too.

Dangerous territory

Media captionAlberto Vollmer and his team talk about Project Alcatraz

His family's hacienda is located in the municipality of Revenga, an area that used to be one of the most violent in a country which is among the most dangerous in the world.

In 2003, the murder rate in this part of central Venezuela was 114 homicides per 100,000 people.

Official figures suggest it had dropped to 12 homicides for every 100,000 people ten years later.

This makes Revenga one of the least violent places in Venezuela and many locals think this is thanks to Project Alcatraz.

Members of seven different local gangs, which have since ceased to exist, have passed through Project Alcatraz.

About 400 men have been given the chance to start a lawful life.

Occupation

Every year, a rugby tournament is played at the hacienda as part of Project Alcatraz drawing professional, university and amateur teams from all over the country.

At the most recent tournament a few weeks ago, a team made up of inmates from the local Tocoron prison took part for the first time.

Image caption Tocoron players filed on to the pitch under the watchful eye of members of Venezuela's national guard
Image caption It was the first time that the team made up of inmates played in the tournament

It is managed by none other than Mr Vollmer himself.

The story of rugby at the hacienda goes back to 2002, when some of it was the target of a land occupation.

Rather than fighting the occupiers, Mr Vollmer encouraged them to build proper houses rather than makeshift shacks.

He also encouraged them to come work for him.

The occupiers are now part of the staff at Santa Teresa. Some work at the rum factory; others are part of Mr Vollmer's security team.

Punishment v rehabilitation

A year later, Mr Vollmer suffered another setback.

Image copyright Santa Teresa
Image caption Players are taught to respect each other and use their pent-up energy on the pitch

A local gang which was looking for guns tried to break into the hacienda safety store.

The security staff at the hacienda stopped them, but were reluctant to hand them over to the police, believing the gang members would soon be back on the streets and likely to retaliate against those who caught them.

Security manager Jimin Perez, trained by the police and a firm believer in punishment, was startled by what his boss did next and not just a little sceptical.

Mr Vollmer suggested offering the gang members work at the rum factory, just as he had with the occupiers the previous year.

"Once we started using Alberto's approach, I was proven wrong," Mr Perez recalls.

Not only did the gang members accept Mr Vollmer's offer, they even convinced some of their fellow members to join them.

Tricky start

But having members of rival gangs at the hacienda was not without its problems.

Mr Perez recalls the first encounter between two rival groups: "It reminded me of when two dogs look at each other, all intimidating glares and gestures."

Mr Vollmer, who had become a fan of rugby during his years at university in France in the 1980s, told them to resolve their problems on the pitch.

"And the surprise was that they played, and when they played, they didn't kill each other," says Mr Perez.

Jose Gregorio Rodriguez was among those who tried to rob the hacienda in 2003.

Image caption Jose Gregorio Rodriguez is the captain of Project Alcatraz's rugby team

He now works for the company and is the captain of Project Alcatraz's rugby team.

"Once you realise that the things you work for will stay with you forever, not like the profits you make from crime, you realise that you want a legal life," he says.

Mr Vollmer says rugby is only part of the rehabilitation programme.

"After the gang attack, we ended up recruiting all these other gangs in the region and channelling their energy into positive things such as fostering values, education and psychological treatment".

But he reckons rugby was key.

"These guys need the physical stuff, these guys are violent, they have all this pent-up energy," he explains. "As we started working with rugby, we suddenly realised this is amazing - these guys… first day on the pitch, and they started behaving like gentlemen."

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