Photo credit: Fundación Santa Teresa, Proyecto Alcatraz

Manuel León is a Venezuelan Economist and an MA candidate in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute, specializing in Power, Conflict and Development. His research interests are violent non-state actors, violence, peace and economic development. In the last four years, he has been an Assistant Professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela’s School of Economics, a Research Analyst in the private sector, and a consultant to the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Permanent Committee for Finance and Economic Development and now to the Observatorio Venezolano de Finanzas.

You can engage in conversation with Manuel via email:, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Leon_Manuel

Proyecto Alcatraz, a case of transforming violence in Venezuela 

Imagine you are a young man that spent all his life growing up in a low income area of a little town one hour away from Caracas. You grew up surrounded by gang violence since you were a kid, and with little to no opportunity to get away from it. Maybe you didn’t even grow up with your mom, you were raised by an aunt or your grandma and everywhere you went, you were not recognized as a member of the family, you were always marginalized, and subject to intrafamily violence and even sexually abused by a family member, like some of the young guys that are part of the project I’m writing about.

Now that you know the context, imagine you commit a crime with some members of your gang and you are presented, for the first time in your life, with two options: to go to jail, or to redeem yourself and pay the damage done with work… which one would you choose?

The ‘Proyecto Alcatraz’ was created in 2003 precisely as an opportunity like the one mentioned above. It was a response to the action of three young men that robbed the ‘Hacienda Santa Teresa’, where the company Santa Teresa produces one of the most famous Venezuelan rums. When they were captured, they were presented with the opportunity to choose between work to pay for the things they stole or be presented to the police and go to jail.

‘Proyecto Alcatraz’ is a social reintegration program for young people and adults with problems of behavior, through training in values, education for work, restorative justice and in which rugby is the vehicle of transformation necessary to move from a world of darkness to one with freedom and light. Throughout, young beneficiaries receive psychological accompaniment, another important factor for their transformation process.

The three young men that were apprehended were part of a gang called ‘La Placita’ that operated in the historical district of El Consejo, in the State of Aragua, Venezuela. When apprehended, the leader of the gang was about 20 years old, and the average age for kids to join was around 15.

Something interesting I found out during the interview I had with Gabriel, the General Manager of the project, is that the only supervision that these now ex-gang members had during their work in the Hacienda was another member of their gang and that, twice a day, they would talk with a supervisor from the company. They were never supervised by security force officers. This was done in order to build trust.

According to Gabriel, the environment where the kids grew up was so violent, that when given this opportunity to live in peace and in a calm manner, without the fear of being killed by other gangs, the probability of these members to invite more friends that are also in gangs was really high.

In this project, youth gang members participate voluntarily, they are the ones deciding to take the opportunity to change their lives and transform their violent leadership into virtuous leadership. The program achieves this through three routes:

  • Reinsertion and Restorative Justice: First, the Foundation Santa Teresa directly contacts and recruits gang members and invites them to go through four work phases in which, assisted by a multidisciplinary group of professionals, the participants develop new social and work skills to face a new life. (approx 200 young recruits).

The latter seeks to recover the affected relationships between victims and perpetrators, through a process of reconciliation and reparation of the damage, with the participation of a mediator and the community. Thus far, they have reached 1,449 people who have been made aware of options that exist in forgiveness, which they had not previously considered as an alternative.

  • Penitentiary Rugby: This part of the program uses training in values, through the constant and disciplined practice of rugby and psychoeducational support, as a tool for the reintegration into society of those deprived of liberty. (over 800 direct beneficiaries).

Again, rugby here is the vehicle for transforming violence, because for you to enjoy the game and, in order for your team to win, you must follow the rules and respect what the referee (the authority) states if you do wrong and a fault in favor of the other team is given. Both things that are usually not seen by gang members.

  • Prevention: Alcatraz Rugby Club, a rugby club composed of 5 categories: Infants, Under 14, Under 18, Female and Free Adults. By training kids and young adults on how to play rugby they are learning great ways to channel ‘violence’ in a good way, since the sport has rules and by following them, fair play allows for everyone to enjoy the game.

When I learnt about Proyecto Alcatraz, back in 2016 I felt contempt, but by looking at it in a deeper way I was able to grasp how great it is that, through sports, the lives of a community can improve. In this sense, Proyecto Alcatraz made me realise how important it is to be given a chance for redemption, a chance to change the life you knew.

Being given hope sometimes could save the lives of many by changing the life of just a few individuals, like that one given to the kids that robbed the Hacienda Santa Teresa.