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Last Updated: Monday, 17 April 2006, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
A very different Alcatraz
By Greg Morsbach
BBC News, El Consejo, Venezuela

The grey walls of El Tocoron high security prison in Venezuela's Aragua state are riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. They are testimony to the prison's track record of violence and rioting.

Project Alcatraz's members in a coffee nursery
Former gang members grow and roast organic coffee
In many ways El Tocoron is no different to other jails in Venezuela and Latin America.

"The last big riot happened here Easter 2003," says Gabriel Garcia, a prisoner convicted of manslaughter. "Lots of people died. It was a bloodbath."

Armed gangs are in control of large sections of the jail, some prisoners say. They speak of murders and death threats on a weekly basis.

A senior prison official, Aquilio Arellana, says the jail is by no means the worst in Venezuela but admits there is room for improvement. "Even the priest who looks after the inmates gets death threats from the gangs who run parts of El Tocoron," he says.

But only an hour's drive away from the prison walls is a place where there is an altogether different approach to rehabilitating criminals, many of whom have committed serious crimes.

Just behind the village of El Consejo, at the end of a long drive, lined by tall palm trees on the left and right, is the Santa Teresa farm and rum distillery.

Santa Teresa which nestles in a lush, green valley surrounded by thousands of acres of sugar cane fields is the home of the Alcatraz Project.

Some 300 young men, who used to belong to violent street gangs in nearby shantytowns, are now part of the project.

Second chance

Nineteen-year-old Jason Lopez has not had much of a childhood or adolescence.

Rugby training for ex-gang members
Rugby training "to get rid of any aggression"
His eyes fill up with tears when he remembered his past: "I killed seven people and have injured countless others. I was in a gang. Everything I did was bad."

But Jason - who has been with the programme for the last three years - says he is now a completely different person.

"The Alcatraz Project has changed my way of thinking. I want to repair the damage I've done and I want to contribute to society."

Jason, like all the other former gang members, was given a choice by the local police when they caught him: either go to court to be convicted and jailed by a judge or join the Alcatraz project.

If they choose the latter option, the youngsters are taught the value of hard work and being productive.

Many of them grow and roast organic coffee, which is then sold in the shops by the rum company at $16 (9) for 0.5kg (1lb). There are plans to export the coffee to the US and Britain this year.

Team work

At first glance, many of the teenagers and youngsters here seem no different to any other adolescents from the Venezuelan countryside.

However, their personal stories range from murder, armed robbery, drug addiction to gang violence.

Alberto Vollmer
In the last three years serious crime has dropped by 76% in our local community
Alberto Vollmer, Alcatraz Project
Many in Venezuelan society, including their own families and the police, have written them off.

But the Alcatraz Project, with its tough re-education programme, has given them a second chance in life.

Some recruits drop out in the first three months of the project, which they spend high up in the hills growing coffee.

Those who stay on for the second phase, get psychological counselling and rugby.

"Rugby teaches the boys to work together as a team and let them get rid of any aggression they may have," says Alberto Vollmer, the founder of the project and owner of the rum company.

Mr Vollmer admits that the local community and the police were at first highly suspicious of his plans for the groundbreaking project.

"There were people who in the beginning felt unhappy with a high concentration of young criminals so close to the town," said the entrepreneur whose distillery has been in family for over 200 years.

"But the official crime statistics show that in the last three years serious crime has dropped by 76% in our local community. We've broken up four dangerous gangs," Alberto Vollmer explains.

"Some streets which used to be no-go areas even for the police are now at peace."

For many who make it to the third part of the Alcatraz Project there is the prospect of gaining a full time job at the Santa Teresa farm.

"Let's face it. It's not going to make me rich," says Tomas, a former crack cocaine addict turned kitchen chef.

"But I feel proud of what I've achieved and how far I've come since hitting rock bottom."

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