Refereeing basketball to escape violence in Venezuela

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Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s Yorsibeth Teran scans the pitch as players shout at her to whistle as locals watch, some drinking coffee.

She is one of 20 young people from a neighborhood in Caracas plagued by violence who have been trained as basketball referees by a local NGO.

“I want to make my parents proud and the kids in the neighborhood look up to me as an example to follow, knowing that they don’t have to be thieves, they can be referees or players,” he said. he adds. old told AFP.

The NGO Caracas Mi Convive has trained dozens of young people from the poor neighborhood of El Cementerio in refereeing, baking, confectionery, hairdressing and graphic arts.

In El Cementerio, famous for its huge cemetery, the entrance to the newly painted basketball court is adorned with the words: “We play for a world with more love and less violence”.

He adds: “Let your faith be greater than your fear.

In July 2021, residents of El Cementerio and nearby areas were paralyzed with fear as 2,500 police officers launched an operation that resulted in two days of shootouts with local criminals.

“I had a terrible experience during the clashes between the gangs and the police,” said Teran.

Four policemen and 22 residents died during the operation.

Since then, Teran has been trained as a baker but she has also learned to referee basketball games.

“Death corridor”

Venezuela has one of the highest rates of violence in the world, with 11,000 violent deaths in 2021, according to the local violence observatory.

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It has the seventh highest murder rate in the world at nearly 41 per 100,000 population.

To get to the basketball court, people have to go through a passage known as “death row” because it is used by gangs.

“A lot of people are afraid to walk in that direction because you never know when there might be a clash,” said Saray Figueredo, who became an activist after the death of her older brother, a gang member.

“You could lose your life from a stray bullet,” she added.

Figueredo tries to change the image of a neighborhood marked by crime and extreme poverty.

In Venezuela, more than three quarters of the population live in extreme poverty, according to a report by the Catholic University Andres Bello.

“We want people to see the other side of the coin, the side where young people are productive,” Figueredo said.

New threat

It’s a Saturday and basketball coach Miguel Ruiz is shooting a hoop during a game where his 26 students work as referees and table officials.

They learn the rules of the International Basketball Federation, the signals of the officials, the timing and the management of a match.

Some students got into trouble for taking drugs or carrying weapons.

“We’re trying to get them out of that situation and into the world of basketball,” Ruiz said.

However, there is another threat around the corner as new criminal groups seek to settle in the territory vacated by those “neutralized” in 2021.

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“The insecurity has increased, we live in fear, now they are stealing and a lot is happening,” said one student, who did not give a name.

“Before, they didn’t steal because it wasn’t allowed (by the gangs). It wasn’t a better life but it was calmer.”

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