• World Half Full

Rum maker offers gangsters a life outside of crime

BUSINESS

WARNING: This story contains one sentence of disturbing content


They once used the house to hide their kidnapping victims as they awaited the ransom. Now they’re converting it into an office for a rum distribution business. The drastic shift by crime boss Luis Oropeza and his gang is part of an unusual social reintegration project that has brought relative calm to the town of Sabaneta in Venezuela. What is even more surprising is that the program has also helped its founder, rum maker Ron Santa Teresa, not only survive but thrive in a country whose economy has been in a downward spiral for years.


The turnaround has been fairly dramatic and fast, reports the New York Times. Just a few years ago, life was very different for Oropeza, as the front door to his former house, riddled with bullet holes, testifies. In 2018, his gang killed a bodyguard and friend of Alberto Vollmer, whose family runs Santa Teresa.


Instead of joining the scores of businesses fleeing the country to escape kidnappings, arrest or financial ruin, the aristocratic Vollmer family chose to stay and engage with Sabaneta’s criminal gangs and with a government that had once promised to destroy the country’s elite. In the process, the Vollmers have gone from declaring bankruptcy to becoming exporters of an award-winning vintage rum.


“If you become an absentee owner, you don’t have the relevance and the authority to sit down with whoever you need to sit down,” says Alberto Vollmer, 53, the family scion who led the company’s restructuring. “You have to walk the talk.”


Vollmer’s leadership has also helped break a vicious cycle of murder and revenge that had made Sabaneta one of the most violent towns in the country.


“We want to use this business opportunity to show that another way is possible,” says Oropeza, 32, who admits to having killed his first victim at 16.


When the project, known as Alcatraz, began in 2003, the county surrounding Sabaneta recorded 174 homicides per 100,000 residents, on par with the capital of El Salvador in the mid-2010s, when it had the highest murder rate in the world. Although the Venezuelan government long stopped publishing statistics, Santa Teresa estimates the rate has dropped to a quarter of that figure. Anecdotal evidence appears to bear that out.


“I used to get panic attacks as soon as the night came,” says Kerling Coronado, who’s married to one of the reintegrated former gang members. “I couldn’t sleep. I felt as if someone was smashing my door, because they used to burst into people’s houses to kill them.”


Santa Teresa contends that 70 percent of the 216 gang members that have gone through Alcatraz — a two-year re-education program that includes rugby games, psychology sessions and vocational training — no longer pursue a life of crime. More than 100 of them have been employed by the company.


Oropeza, who’s passed through Alcatraz, lost three brothers and two cousins to gang violence. One was shot 200 times in the face one Christmas Eve, he says; another was decapitated and his head used as a football by his enemies. “It was either them, or it was you,” says Gregorio Oropeza, Luis’s surviving brother and former gang member, referring to the incessant violence.

Most of the 14 men who enrolled in the program with Oropeza had spent time in jail, had killed or had relatives killed. It took years of negotiations for Santa Teresa to overcome gang members’ fear of being ambushed by rivals or eliminated by the police, and to agree to re-education.


Accepting Oropeza into the program presented a challenge for the company as well. “We ask so many people to forgive,” says Gabriel Álvarez, the general manager of the Alcatraz project. “When it was our turn, we could not say no.”


In an effort to make amends to the town they once terrorised, Oropeza gang members are now creating a company that will distribute Santa Teresa’s products as well as renovating a school and church.


“I wished this project would have arrived earlier,” says one resident, Cristina Ladaez, 40. “We wouldn’t have had to live through so much death.”


Alcatraz’s focus on providing financial opportunities and psychological training to gangsters contrasts sharply with the Venezuelan government’s alternating attempts to either tolerate or exterminate criminals. The gangs have only grown bigger and more coordinated as a result, says Veronica Zubillaga, a Venezuelan sociologist studying organised crime. In a country where three out of four people are estimated to live in extreme poverty, crime can be one of the few options available to young men in destitute neighbourhoods, she notes. The economic collapse also gutted the government’s law enforcement capacity, forcing companies to seek their own solutions to deal with rampant crime, says Ricardo Cusanno, a former head of Venezuela’s business chamber.

Alcatraz has proven to be a good business strategy for Santa Teresa as well, underscoring the company’s ability to combine social consciousness with commercial gain.


Dismantling local gangs significantly reduced theft and kidnapping threats against the company’s property and employees, Vollmer says. And after Alcatraz expanded to Venezuela’s jails in 2007, Santa Teresa’s executives were able to foster relationships with underworld bosses, shielding the company from the extortion fees that plague most other businesses in the country. “Organised crime pulls on invisible nylon strings,” he says. “They are clearly a very important stakeholder in the country.”


Santa Teresa is now Venezuela’s largest rum maker, surpassing its pre-pandemic sales this year. Its flagship product, a vintage blended rum called 1796, has won a number of awards and is now available in high-end bars around the world, thanks to a distribution deal with Bacardi.


Alcatraz is only one example of the company’s novel approach to managing Venezuela’s turmoil. In 2000, when hundreds of poor families invaded the company estate with the government’s support, Vollmer voluntarily provided part of his land for a social housing initiative. The offer helped the company escape expropriation and allowed Vollmer to build important relationships with the government of then-president Hugo Chávez.


“We converted this crisis into a great opportunity,” Álvarez says.


It was an unlikely partnership. The Vollmers, who trace their lineage to the independence campaigner Simón Bolívar, epitomise the hereditary elites whose wealth Chávez argued belonged to the people. “Oligarchs, tremble!” Chávez said shortly after taking power in 1999. He spent the next 14 years nationalising their businesses and shutting them out of the lucrative import deals that had long sustained their fortunes. Big businesses responded by supporting a coup against him and trying to topple him on the back of a three-month national strike.


Vollmer’s collaboration with Chávez, and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has angered many of his peers, who’ve accused him of aiding a government they say has destroyed democracy and committed grave human rights abuses. Vollmer shrugs off the attacks, pointing out that it is easier to criticise from exile than to try creating positive change from within Venezuela. “Starting in our county, we want to build a society that is better,” he argues.


MAIN Anther Herrera, an Alcatraz participant, at a rum tasting at Hacienda Santa Teresa

ABOVE TOP Alcatraz members during a behavioural psychology class in Sabaneta

ABOVE MIDDLE Children playing rugby in Sabaneta as Alcatraz members repaint a school in an area where a gang used to operate

ABOVE BOTTOM Kerling Coronado with husband, Brayan Hernandez, at the pastry shop they opened with the help of Alcatraz. “I used to get panic attacks as soon as the night came,” she said of the violence the town was known for.

PHOTOS Adriana Loureiro Fernandez


I wished this project would have arrived earlier. We wouldn’t have had to live through so much death.

Cristina Ladaez


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