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El Consejo, Venezuela - When Jose Arrieta and two of his fellow gang-members sneaked into the Santa Teresa rum distillery 13 years ago, he never imagined it would become a ticket out of a life of crime.

The plan was straightforward: light a fire in the sugarcane field and wait. It wasn't long before a security guard spotted the plume of smoke, and oblivious to the ambush, walked straight into the hands of three gang members.

Arrieta's gang - La Placita - had clashed with a better-established neighbouring gang. His men were inexperienced and poorly armed and the Santa Teresa distillery had an arsenal of guns they planned to steal.

"We took his gun, his radio and his motorcycle," Arrieta recalls, sipping black coffee.

Not long after the violent attack and arms theft the culprits were tracked down by Jimin Perez, a former policeman who had become the distillery's head of security.

But instead of delivering them to the local police, Perez took them to meet the chief executive of Santa Teresa Alberto Vollmer.

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After giving it some thought, Vollmer, the heir of one of Venezuela's wealthiest families, made a somewhat unorthodox decision. He gave the men two options: serve time in prison or pay off their crimes by working without pay on the estate for three months. 

The men chose the second option, but only after asking Vollmer to take on all 22 members of La Placita.

"They told us the deal was for three men, but Jose had the courage to tell them that either he helped us all or we were out of there," explains Arrieta's cousin Jesus Arrieta, who was also a member of La Placita.

Vollmer agreed and the gang members became guinea pigs in what would become Proyecto Alcatraz, or the Alcatraz Project.

The men were soon boxing bottles, working in the fields, recycling and taking care of the estate's upkeep.

More than a decade later, the distillery's umbrella organisation, the Santa Teresa Foundation, continues to run the Alcatraz Project. 

For 13 years it has worked with more than 180 men from nine different gangs. It aims to give them the skills to rebuild their lives. In exchange for their labour, the project offers schooling, psychological assistance, community service and rugby training. After a trial period of three months, those who graduate are given a formal job with a salary.

The project has created a safer environment for the distillery to operate in and lowered the crime rate in the area considerably.

According to project manager Gabriel Alvarez Mayorca, in 2003 there were 114 murders per 100,000 habitants in the Ravenga municipality - at the time that was double Venezuela's average murder rate, making it one of the most dangerous municipalities in the country. Eleven years after the founding of Alcatraz the number dropped to 13 cases per 100,000 habitants.

'The best thing that has happened in our lives'

A long road flanked by sugarcane fields dissects the estate's 3,000 hectares. By the side of the road, a group of men stand beneath a towering palm tree, taking a break from hacking paths through the sugarcane.

"It's the best thing that has happened in our lives," says 37-year-old David Falcon about the project. "We can be an example to others," adds 42-year-old Carlos Tobar.

At 56, Nelson Rojas is one of the older members of the project. He stands tall over his workmates and dons a battered New York Yankees cap to shield his face from the tropical morning sun.

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Before Alcatraz, Rojas had spent three months in the so-called devil's cave, one of the region's toughest prisons, for selling drugs. Today, he says, he is no longer involved in the sale of drugs and is the happiest he has ever been when he is working the fields.

"I would tell them [criminals and gang members] to change because there is only one life and it has to be lived. I would say: if you go on this way, you will die," Rojas reflects.

When it began, some Santa Teresa employees were sceptical about the project; many of them had been assaulted by La Placita gang members and were uncomfortable working in such close proximity to them.

"There was not a single person in the [nearby] towns that had not been a victim of these guys," explains project manager Gabriel Alvarez Mayorca. "But when they saw the victimiser begin to change, the victims changed too."

David, 37, was only 24 when he joined the Alcatraz Project, today he has a job and a four-year-old daughter [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

Second opportunities

I was in middle school when I carried out my first crime, then I slowly fell deeper into it - before you know it you're up to your neck in it and it's hard to get out

Jose Arrieta

Jose Arrieta has now become a rugby coach, training some 2,000 players. Today it is hard to imagine the softly-spoken 36-year-old wielding a gun, but back in 2003 assaulting people and selling drugs was his bread and butter.

"I was in middle school when I carried out my first crime, then I slowly fell deeper into it - before you know it you're up to your neck in it and it's hard to get out," says Arrieta, who coaches children and adults, including inmates, six days a week.

"I used to see my cousins walking around with guns and I wanted a gun too, now they [kids] see them [adults] going around with rugby balls and they want a rugby ball too," he says.

Not only is rugby thriving in a place where, until 2003, the game was virtually unknown, but it has also become the key element in a project that is pushing for positive social reform.

"Through rugby they have come to know a different way of life," says Arrieta, describing how the game's discipline and teamwork has changed his community for the better.

Most of the boys and girls he trains have either lost their fathers or have seen them become entangled in a life of drugs and crime. "Rugby is really helping them," he says.

His cousin, 35-year-old Jesus Arrieta, was once one of the many children in and around El Consejo to grow up without a father.

"I didn't have a father and my mother left the house in the early morning to go and work, I was abandoned," Jesus explains.

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When he was 11 years old, his neighbours would pay him to drink rum until he was too intoxicated to walk. He remembers how he grew violent and increasingly isolated from his family. Then, at the age of 12, Jesus tried heroin for the first time.

"I felt a lot of pain, sadness and rejection and I almost lost my life many times," he explains. "I spent so long submerged in that dark life, until the Alcatraz Project arrived."

By then Jesus was addicted to alcohol and it would take him 13 years to get sober.

Today, he has a steady job welcoming tourists to the Santa Teresa estate, a wife and three children.

"The father that I lacked when I was on the street, I have found here," he says.

"Young people should be heard, [they] should be given a second opportunity."

Carlos Tobar works in the sugarcane fields with former members of rival gangs. 'There's no animosity between us, only comradeship,' he says [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

'My life had been destroyed by delinquency' 

My life had been destroyed by delinquency, [my hope is] to keep working and for my daughters to grow up knowing they have a good father they can count on

Luis Enrique Vina

By the time Luis Enrique Vina was 18 he had killed 10 people, and had been sentenced to decades in prison.

Six years ago he was given a chance to start over in Santa Teresa. Today, the 42-year-old has two daughters, a high school degree and a job he values.

Vina smiles as he tells his story; it is easy to forget that the hands he so quickly gesticulates with once took the lives of 10 people.

"My life had been destroyed by delinquency, [my hope is] to keep working and for my daughters to grow up knowing they have a good father they can count on," he says, taking a break from bottling rum.

But not everyone has been able to claw their way out of a life of crime. The Alcatraz Project has a 60 percent success rate, according to Mayorca, and those who drop out often end up in jail, a hospital bed or dead.

"Each took his own path, some changed quickly, others struggled and some didn't make it," says rugby coach Arrieta.

Of the three gang members who put the project in motion, Arrieta is the only one who remains a part of Alcatraz - one is dead and the other was recently in prison.

"I've tried to steer them in the right direction," explains Arrieta, the sprawling rugby pitch and lush green hills behind him. "But you have to want it."

A former La Placita gang member, Jose Arrieta is one of the three men who broke in to Santa Teresa, triggering the start of the Alcatraz Project. Today he is a rugby coach [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera News