Amid the chaos and misery that have engulfed Venezuela lies a strange parcel of tranquility, tucked within a valley surrounded by poplar trees and mountains some 20 miles south of the Caribbean coast.
It is a field populated by dozens of lanky teenage boys who are spending this particular evening — as they often do — galloping around the grass in pursuit of an oval ball.
These impoverished Venezuelans are training in the skills of a sport not often seen in a South American nation that’s mad about soccer, baseball and horse racing: They are playing rugby.
Their game is taking place on the grounds of a hacienda, a picturesque country estate that includes a distillery and sugarcane plantation, in the Aragua Valley about 40 miles west of the capital Caracas.
The estate belongs to Santa Teresa, makers of Venezuela’s oldest brand of rum, which has — its website proudly proclaims — withstood “wars, revolutions, invasions, even dictators” since it first started distilling more than 200 years ago.
Rugby is one more albeit unusual play in the rum-maker’s history of negotiating the country’s turbulent times, this time by helping turn its neighborhood away from violent crime, especially by gangs.
Watching this evening’s training session is Guillermo Morales, 21, a keen rugby player who would normally be on the field but has been sidelined by an injury. “Here, you don’t see what you see at home, like guns and drugs,” says Morales, who lives nearby. “Here, we are away from all that.”
Surviving Venezuela’s mayhem these days is “really tough,” he says. “You just want to cry and cry.” For him, coming here to play rugby in the safe haven of a country estate provides a welcome escape from reality.
The story of how rum and rugby came to be mixed in this part of Venezuela begins in 2003, and has since evolved into local legend. Criminal gangs, hungry for guns, were particularly active in the surrounding communities at that time. Rivalries abounded; homicides were common.
According to Bernardo López, manager of the Santa Teresa Foundation, three gang members broke into the hacienda, in the hope of stealing the security guards’ weapons.
The men were captured. Instead of handing them over to the police, for certain imprisonment, the rum-maker’s chief executive, Alberto Vollmer, offered them a chance to atone for their crime by working unpaid at the distillery for a few months instead.
López says the gang members agreed. Yet when they eventually reported for work, they showed up with their whole gang — some 20 other men — “saying that if [Vollmer] was offering jobs, they wanted jobs for everyone.”
Eager to build bridges with a community with soaring unemployment, and to reduce the threat of gang crime, Vollmer took them in, says López.
Vollmer is a descendant of a German merchant who migrated to Venezuela in 1830. He is also a rugby enthusiast — having played as a schoolboy — who believes this rough and rugged sport is character-building because it helps nurture respect, sportsmanship, discipline and humility.
It would therefore be a good idea, Vollmer concluded, to introduce the gangs to the game.
This became the starting point of what became Project Alcatraz, a rehabilitation program that Santa Teresa has since expanded to include vocational training, psychological counseling and formal education. The name is both a nod to the notorious California prison and to the gannet bird, which is what alcatraz translates to in English.
Some 2,000 mostly poor youngsters from the surrounding districts regularly play rugby at the hacienda as part of a preventive program to deter them from joining gangs.
“They fall in love with our rugby,” says Luis Daniel “Chino” López, coach of the youth team, as he gazes at his players out on the field wrestling over the ball.
The hacienda is a kind of refuge for them, he says — although the realities of life in Venezuela sometimes intrude. “They sometimes say ‘Oh, Chino, I’m hungry,’ but we help them with that. Sometimes we give them food.”
According to the Santa Teresa Foundation, the Alcatraz project has sharply lowered the homicide rate in the locality in recent years. Crime, however, remains a problem.
Gertrudis, a middle-aged widow who lives nearby — and who wants her full name withheld for fear of reprisals — says no one in the neighborhood dares go outside after 7 p.m. for fear of being robbed or assaulted.
She concedes the rugby at the Santa Teresa hacienda might help lower crime, but appears far more concerned about her daily ordeal of lining up to get food from 4 a.m., regular power outages and Venezuela’s chronic shortage of medicines.
Project Alcatraz has expanded to include hundreds of prison inmates. Its representatives regularly visit Venezuelan penitentiaries to organize rugby games and recruit players.
Santa Teresa now hosts a one-day rugby 7-a-side tournament for inmates. At the most recent, in December, 13 prison teams took part, escorted to the estate by prison guards and surrounded by a security ring of National Guard soldiers.
“Imagine the atmosphere,” says Bernardo López of the Santa Teresa Foundation. “We have 300 inmates in the hacienda, and their handcuffs are taken off. They exchange their uniforms for rugby clothes, and start to play.
“You can see their families cheering from the bleachers. There are moms, who have come to meet their sons and children who’re able to see their fathers. Afterwards, they can hug, and talk.”
None of this work has been made easier as Venezuela grapples with economic collapse and a political crisis in which the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó has been leading a campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro, arguing that he was illegally reelected.
As the country’s instability deepens, getting gangs to agree to participate in Project Alcatraz has become harder, says López.
“Gangs right now in Venezuela are not the gangs that we used to manage in 2003,” he says. “Gangs now are huge. We’re talking about hundreds of men.”
Yet he’s undeterred. Rehabilitation and rugby will continue, he says.
“We don’t do this to sell rum. We sell rum to do this. This is our purpose.”