Proyecto Alcatraz began with a more violent invasion: Three local gang members ambushed one of Santa Teresa's security guards, beat him, and stole his gun.
"It's quite a story. Our head of security, Jimin, caught one of the guys after three days, and took him to the police," Alberto relates. "But the police here, it's not like the States. They look on the computer: 'Wanted for this, this, and this. Ah.' The worst prison you can imagine is the best alternative. Otherwise, they take you out in the jeep - which means you're dead. Jimin calls me up and says, 'Listen, the police are taking this guy out to execute him. Green light or red light?' I said, 'No, no, red light. Bring him over here.' They didn't want to give him over. But Jimin finally bought the guy for 50,000 Bolivares. That's something like 23 bucks. Amazing, no? Twenty-three dollars, the difference between life and death."
Improvising as he went along, Alberto presented the gang member with two options. "One, you go back to the police. Two, you work for three months, for nothing. Choose." The young perp was at Santa Teresa's office at seven Monday morning. When Alberto asked if he knew four or five others who'd be interested in a work/training program, 22 showed up - the entire gang.
Roughly 115 gang members are currently participants or graduates of the program, which has grown to include agricultural labor, education in values, psychological counseling, community service, and rugby training. After three months, graduates can opt for paid employment; the brothers themselves have hired four graduates as Santa Teresa marketing trainees. Or graduates can further their education in Cafe Alcatraz's coffee-growing program or the Tallerdel Constructar Popular, a builders' workshop where the young gang members - many of whom were formerly employed as professional hit men - learn complex computer architecture programs and remarkably intricate woodworking.
Touring El Consejo's barrio with Alberto these days is actually somewhat frustrating: So many residents stop him for chats and high-fives, it takes half an hour to walk half a block. There's a prolonged consultation, for instance, at a drug house that's being remodeled into a day care center. But it's also inspiring. When several gang members are asked how they feel about the project and themselves, one very serious 20-year-old breaks into a rap song he wrote detailing the disapproval with which people reacted to him before, and the admiration after. "He's called Patapiche, Smelly Feet," grins Alberto. "He was the most feared gang leader in the region."
"At first we thought it was a trap to kill us all," says Jose, a young guy in a red stocking hat. "Then we realized it was because they wanted us to change; they were giving us an opportunity."
But Alberto frankly admits that the brothers' do-gooder projects are also just good business, especially in a situation where the property of the rich faces confiscation or destruction. "The drive to do good comes from 208 years, because we had to preserve our land, our philosophy. And the only way to do that is to actually change your surroundings so our way of life is sustainable.