Rugby makes world better in Venezuela
As a Venezuelan I have to admit that rugby is not quite popular here. In fact, American Football is better known and followed. It saddens me since I love rugby and I cannot really enjoy it as much as I want it. It does not deprive me to investigate everything I need to know about the sport, including their most memorable moments. That’s how I found out about the violent final match in the Olympics of 1924, Serge Blanco’s last minute try in the semifinal of the World Cup in 1987, the brilliant career of Jonah Lomu and Jonny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal in the last minute of extra time in the 2003 World Cup.
That’s why when the movie “Invictus” came out, it caught my attention instantly. It was about Mandela, South Africa and of course, Rugby. I watched it and honestly, I did not like it. I felt like the producers were not able to transmit the real dimension of such epic moment in Universal History. So on my own I made my research about the 1995 Rugby World Cup and its impact on South African history.
Then I found this wonderful quote by Nelson Mandela, that turns out to be true in the story we’ll bring to you in this article:
“Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
“It speaks to youth in a language they understand” and that’s quite true. In Venezuela, a country with a terrible problem of delinquency, unsafety and violence, rugby is used as a way to regenerate former criminals and the results have been astonishing.
Without making any political commentary, in 1999 murders rate in Venezuela was of 19 per 100 thousand habitants. Today, that number is 77 per 100,000. The World Justice Project studied the situation of the justice systems in 97 countries and Venezuela is ranked last. The impunity is also a problem in the country: 90% of the murder cases in remains unresolved, in most of cases the investigations are closed, in some others they never started.
Last year, in only Caracas, the amount of people murdered by January 23th was 205. Armed robberies are also very common in Venezuela: In every street and every hour, one is committed. They mug you with a gun or with a knife, sometimes the victim does not even notice it, robbers have reached such a level of sophistication! And collective armed robberies are not exception: they mugged people in an entire subway, bus, bank, supermarket and in their own homes.
In 14 years the criminal rates went up 444%, it is estimated that two thousand people are murdered in monthly basis. One of their victims was Monica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela who was killed along with his British husband in front of their daughter while they were receiving mechanic assistance with their broken car, in the middle of a dark road at midnight. Two of the suspicious killer were two kids of 15 and 17 years. And that’s another problem: a considerable amount of criminals in the country are underage 18. A lost youth.
In the middle of this, Proyecto Alcatraz makes its appearance on stage.
Venezuela has what recently was declared the “Best Rum Distillery in the World”, located in Santa Teresa, Aragua State. In 2003 a terrible incident occurred when one of the watch men of the company was assaulted by three robbers. They robbed his gun and beat him ruthlessly until almost death. Without calling the police, the company started their own investigation and they captured the three delinquents. Alberto Volmer, owner of the company, talks himself with the teenagers and offered them two paths: jail or volunteer and unpaid job during three months in the company, they accepted the latter and once the three months were over they requested to be kept permanently and that the rest of their gang would be incorporated into it too, that’s 22 former criminals put their guns down and started a life of honesty and hard work.
That was just the beginning.
Few months later the tension came to the fields of Santa Teresa’s hacienda when the members of the rival gang asked to be included in the project too. It was not just about reinsertion now but also reconciliation.
At first, the former criminals were just tough to work in the company and nothing else. When Vollmer noted that things started to get a little tense, he introduced them to one of his passions as student in France: Rugby, and he explained why he choose rugby instead of soccer or baseball (the most popular sports in the country):
“Rugby provides you maturity, inner control and integrity. In rugby each team is like a gang of brothers and I though this could do well in Venezuela. (…) Rugby has a culture of respect, even if one of the players do not respect the referee, the coach exclude him no matter if they could lose the game. Besides, there is sportsmanship: at the end of the game you share with the rivals in the third half time. I though this could make good things in Venezuela”.
That was the official birth of Proyecto Alcatraz, a social reinsertion project aimed to rescue youth from a world of drugs, violence and crime and make them a productive part of society through hard work and practice of rugby. The project takes its name from the homonymous famous Californian prison because they intend to cause same effect but in a reversed way: they teach the boys that the worst prison is oneself, the challenge is to scape from ourselves, the future depends on them, their capacity to take advantage of the opportunity given in Santa Teresa.
During three months the boys participate in a program that includes intensive work, integral formation in values, education for work, practice of rugby, psychological assistance and community work. The social reinsertion of these youngster aims to resolve the worst two problems of the community: delinquency and unemployment.
Do you think projects such as Proyecto Alcatraz could be succesful in other parts of the world?
Although the project was born specially focused on the criminal gangs it later expanded to include the schools of the municipality. Women whose teenage kids were killed by criminality participate as volunteers.
An important onward step occurred when the Project could enter into the loins of Tocoron, a famous jail with 7,000 prisoners although its original capacity is of 250 and it’s regarded as one of the most dangerous in the continent.
This was not easy of course. First they talked to the management of the jail, with the ministry of penitentiary affairs and finally with the “pranes”, prisoners who rules the jail with their own rules. While teaching rugby to the prisoners Vollmer talked to them:
“I have a goal with all of you. I want that soon a team of this prison participate in the annual tournament we held in Santa Teresa. I don’t give you my word because I know the word means all in this world but I guarantee we’ll work on that.”
The dream came true in 2013 when a team from Tocoron Jail participated in the annual tournament in Santa Teresa, an event approved and supervised by Venezuelan Rugby Federation.
At the end of the team’s participation in the tournament, one of their members commented:
“Our goal was not to win but send a message to every people in a penitentiary center and tell them: you still have a life and, being imprisoned does not mean you have lost it all, you still have the chance to keep improving in your studies, in sports and your way to be”.
In eleven years Proyecto Alcatraz has recruited more than 2,200 people who have played in all the categories of the teams, from the bases to senior, male and female version, Rugby union or Rugby Seven style of Play. A good part of the former Alcatrazes have been part of the “Orchids”, Venezuelan national rugby team.
Vollmer always emphasizes on the values of Rugby as key of success of the whole project:
“In soccer’s training you can see much individualism, on the other hand in rugby you see coordination, compromise and responsibility, the goal above the individual. You can even note it on the celebrations: they’re quieter.”
In eleven years of existence the Project could reduce the murders rate in their municipality from 123 to 12 per 100,000 habitants. All this was achieved without any kind of support or help from the police or the government. They managed to debunk five dangerous criminal gangs without shooting any gun. The project was selected as a case study for the Social Entrepreneurship Knowledge Network (SEKN), lead by Harvard University (Professor James Austin) and as a case model to eradicate poverty, by the World Bank at the Youth, Peace and Development Conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia 2004.
They also were recognized as social initiative in 2004 by the Construction Chamber of Venezuela. In the competitive field, the team participated two years in a row in the International Tournament of Rugby (2006 in Argentina and 2008 in Venezuela)
The Project has grown rapidly. Today they even have a staff of psychologists. But Mr. Vollmer does not considerer that the Project is perfect yet and once it is they plan to “expand it to the rest of Aragua state, then the country and finally, other countries”.
Proyecto Alcatraz in motion
Alcatraz has not only improved the lives of former criminals and made a great social contribution to its community, it has also helped to enlarge rugby practice and acceptance in Venezuela. As Vollmer admits, before 2003 Rugby was essentially an academic sport, played exclusively in universities. Vollmer himself founded the rugby team of his university. The first rugby game in the country was played by British workers in the 50’s and later in the 70’s occurred the first game played by only Venezuelans.
Since 2003 the rugby has grown in the country, championships have come out in all the nation and the country’s team has improved so much that they have won two regional tournament, they are currently ranked 61st in the world and ESPN Argentina has expanded their transmission of rugby to Venezuela, where we have watched the Six Nation Tournament, the Rugby Championship and hopefully the Rugby World Cup this year.
Yes, the project is about studies and jobs but also rugby, and Mr. Vollmer admits that rugby was the element that made all this possible:
“Without the values of respect, discipline and teamwork of this sport, this would have not worked out”.
All this agrees with Mandela’s quote at the beginning of this article, to which we could add that sports “are more effective than brute force to finish crime off”.
Jose Gregorio, one of the original robbers of the incident that started all this, is now coach of the team and he says:
“Before, children saw us with weapon and they would play with weapons; now, if they see us with rugby balls, they would play with rugby balls”.
Rugby is making a positive social impact in the country, but this does not seem enough and the sport is still a class D event in our society. We sincerely hope that Proyecto Alcatraz keeps growing and the people would stop thinking of rugby as a violent and elitist sport but as a passionate and beautiful game.
Besides, Venezuela has proofed that their native born people have talent for rugby in their DNA: Serge Blanco, one of the best full backs in history was born in Caracas.
Acknowledgment and Sources
We thank the following links for providing the information and visual material for this article to be possible: