Argentina's murderers and robbers try rugby for redemption

BUENOS AIRES: They were jailed for murder, armed robbery and other violent crimes. But the inmates of a maximum security prison in Argentina are now seeking redemption through the rough and tumble of rugby.

When the jailbirds play for their prison team, the Spartans, they get a brief taste of freedom and a chance to channel their aggression. And the rate of reoffenders among the rugby players is way down.

"My name is Johny, I'm 29 years old, and I play in the second row in the Spartans pack. I was jailed for murder during an armed robbery," said Johny Acevedo during a training session at the prison in San Martin, just north of Buenos Aires.

Every Tuesday, Acevedo joins another 80 inmates, aged 18 to 40, as they train under Eduardo "Coco" Oderigo, a lawyer and former rugby player who started the project in 2009, along with two other volunteers, former prosecutor Jose Barbaccia and businessman Daniel Lanusse.

Their first match was against the prison guards' team.

"We beat them," said Oderigo with a smile.

They gradually worked their way up to playing clubs from the Argentina league, and even got to meet the England side last week during their tour of Argentina.

They haven't always won, but the rate of recidivists among the rugby playing prisoners has dropped from 65 percent to just five percent.

"Of the 200 players who have left these past years, only seven have relapsed," said Oderigo.

Acevedo is almost seven years into a 13-year sentence and one of the big perks is that he gets to see his seven-year-old son, who comes to cheer him on in matches the team plays against league clubs every two or three months.

The strapping young man has been playing on the prison team for two years, and in 2015, when the prison team played the league side Newman, Acevedo saw his son Santino for the first time since he had been incarcerated.

"His mother didn't want him coming to the prison, but she let him go there," he said.

"Since then I've been out to play seven times and I've seen Santino every time. There was a before and there was an after that day," said Acevedo, who has been studying in prison and hopes to attend university one day.

From the Pumas to the pope

In cell block 8, there is no sense of the damp chill in autumn air as the players file out for training, greeting their coaches warmly.

On the wall hangs a blue and white rugby shirt with the message "To the Spartans, with a big hug from Los Pumas" – the Argentina national team, who have signed it.

A photo also shows the December 2015 meeting between former Spartans players and Pope Francis in the Vatican.

The walls of the prison courtyard are painted with images of the pope and of Jesus, testifying to the strength of the Catholic faith here.

While Argentina is a notoriously football-obsessed nation, rugby has taken off in 28 prisons in the past 18 months, despite being traditionally the sport of the upper classes.

The Spartans' captain, 24-year-old Gabriel Marquez, only discovered his passion for the game behind bars, and believes that if he had found it sooner he might never have fallen into the trap of drugs and crime.

He is due to be released in 10 months, thanks to the promise of a job: the three trainers use their contacts in the private sector to find work for their proteges.

Marquez said that rugby games had always given him "two hours of freedom that makes you forget you're in jail".

He plans to use his experience to help kids at risk of making the same mistakes he did. — AFP