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Venezuelan Factory Mixes Rum With Rugby To Stem Crime

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The chaos in Venezuela's government has left many ordinary people there on their own. Aside from poverty and hunger, people also worry about crime, especially gangs. NPR's Philip Reeves reports on a company that found a way to address that problem.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Something strange is going on here. We're in a valley 20 miles south of the Caribbean coast. As the setting sun dips below the trees...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling).

REEVES: ...Some teenage boys are playing a game you don't often see in Venezuela. They're playing rugby. Guillermo Morales, who's 21, would normally be on the field. But he's injured, so he's watching from the sidelines. Morales lives close by. For him, this game and this place belong to another world.

GUILLERMO MORALES: (Through interpreter) Here, you don't see what you see at home, like guns and drugs. Here, we're away from all that.

REEVES: Morales is finding surviving Venezuela's economic collapse...

MORALES: (Through interpreter) Really tough. You just want to cry and cry. You don't know what to do.

REEVES: We're on the grounds of a hacienda - an estate that belongs to Venezuela's oldest rum makers, Santa Teresa. Bernardo Lopez of the Santa Teresa Foundation says the company first mixed rum with rugby 16 years ago because of a burglary.

BERNARDO LOPEZ: The gangs around the hacienda were trying to get their hands into weapons, so three of them came and robbed the security guy.

REEVES: A couple of those gangsters were caught, says Lopez. Instead of letting the cops lock them up, Santa Teresa's chief executive made them an offer. They could pay for their crime by working on the estate for a couple of months. Lopez says the gang members agreed, but when they showed up for work...

LOPEZ: They came with the whole gang, saying that if he was offering jobs, they want jobs for everyone.

REEVES: Eager to build bridges in a high-crime neighborhood, Santa Teresa's boss took them in. He happens to be a huge rugby fan. He played the game as a kid in France and thinks it's character building. To strengthen those bridges, he set up a project to get the gang members playing rugby, hoping this would help them turn their lives around. The projects widened to include other rehabilitation and training programs, and the rugby has taken off.

LOPEZ: And now we have around 2,000 kids playing rugby in the hacienda day after day. We see them as examples of how you fall and you can lose your teeth, but you don't have to lose your smile.

REEVES: There used to be a lot of gang wars in this part of Venezuela. Lopez says the local murder rate's down because of the Santa Teresa project. Crime is still a big problem, though. Step out of the estate and into the nearby home of a woman called Gertrudis. She doesn't want her full name broadcast because she fears reprisals. Gertrudis is a widow in her 60s.

GERTRUDIS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She says she and her neighbors never go outside after 7 at night because of the risk of being robbed or assaulted. She knows all about the rugby down the road and says, yes...

GERTRUDIS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: It does sometimes help young men get out of crime. Yet she's far more focused on her daily struggle to get food and water.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Food is also an issue for the rugby players, says the coach of the youth team Luis Daniel Lopez, who's also known as Chino.

LUIS DANIEL LOPEZ: They sometimes say, oh, Chino, I'm hungry - sometimes. But we help them with that. Sometimes, we give them food.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Yelling in Spanish).

REEVES: So this is a kind of refuge.

LOPEZ: Yes. Yes, a refuge, a shelter - this is part of their home.

REEVES: Coach Chino loves teaching rugby in a country that's crazy about soccer. He especially loves the reaction of his players when they see a rugby ball for the first time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Man, what the hell rugby? Look, this ball - it's not round. It's odd-shaped.

REEVES: They soon adjust, says Chino.

LOPEZ: They fall in love with rugby, literally. They fall in love with rugby. They love this sport.

REEVES: Sixteen years on, the rum company's still reaching out to local gangs and trying to get them involved in its rehab and training programs, including rugby. Bernardo Lopez of the Santa Teresa Foundation says he's been talking to one gang for an entire year.

LOPEZ: Obviously, the negotiation is very hard. It's very complex. Gangs right now in Venezuela are not the gangs that we used to manage in 2003. Gangs right now are huge, are big. We're talking about hundreds of men.

REEVES: Lopez asks them one question.

LOPEZ: Where are you going to be in five years? Most of them don't have that plan of timeline of five year because most of them will find death or in jail in that amount of period.

REEVES: They usually do eventually crack, says Lopez.

LOPEZ: You think about five years when you, all the time, have been thinking in the next hour, that's a moment of reflection.

REEVES: As Venezuela's crisis deepens, rescuing troubled young people matters more now than ever, says Lopez.

LOPEZ: We don't do this to sell rum. We sell rum to do this. This is our purpose.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.