Spartans: prisoners and angry found a way out in sport and work

Text by Nicolás Cassese


December 23th 2023

A “junk”. This is how Ezequiel Escudero perceived himself seven Christmases ago, in 2016. And he was right: at the age of 21, he was lying in the Campana prison, sheltered in the lionhouse, a transit place for prisoners who had not yet been placed in their cell block. He was trying to recover from the 45 stab wounds with which he had been stabbed in the same prison after resisting having the few belongings with which he arrived stolen. Estefanía Arévalo also felt sunk in a well of anguish when she had to stop seeing her 3-year-old daughter so as not to expose her to the harsh daily life of being a prisoner. “Being alive in hell,” is how Carlos Ponce describes his journey through different penitentiary units in the province of Buenos Aires.

The three of them, like thousands of other prisoners and ex-prisoners, found in rugby a path to redemption among the darkness that exists in prisons. His salvation came through the Espartanos Foundation, which promotes the practice of sports inside prisons as a mechanism for the social reintegration of prisoners.

Eduardo “Coco” Oderigo, a 53-year-old lawyer with eight children and a past as a first-team SIC player, is the soul behind the foundation. The ambition of the program is not consistent with its humble beginnings. In 2009, Coco visited the San Martín maximum security complex and left saddened. For 15 years he had worked in a criminal court and was accustomed to the stories of prisoners, but not to the hopelessness that he saw in prison.

“I would like to teach the prisoners how to play rugby,” he told the prison director. He didn't have much of a plan, just an intuition that sport could help them. The results showed him that he was right. The program today is replicated in 57 prison units in 21 provinces of Argentina and in 15 prisons abroad, located in Spain, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Peru and Kenya. They estimate that, at the national level, more than 2600 players participate in federal and provincial prisons. The number that Coco is most proud of is the number of recidivism. The average for the Argentine prison system is 65 percent. That of the Spartans, 5 percent.

The foundation's work continues when people leave prison. Faced with the harsh reality of looking for employment after years in prison, ex-convicts fight against their lack of work routines and society's prejudices. To help them, the Spartans offer training programs and contacts with companies willing to give them a second chance. Ezequiel, Estefanía and Carlos are three of the 100 Spartans who found work thanks to the foundation.


“Rugby has completely changed.
my life"

After his life was saved in the Zárate hospital after receiving Christmas in 2016 with 45 stab wounds, Ezequiel Escudero returned to prison naked, convalescing and becoming a pariah. One by one, the leaders of the different pavilions - which in Tumbero language are called cleanings - were rejecting him. They didn't want him because he was conflictive. Imprisoned since he was 17 and convicted of two robberies and one attempted murder, Ezequiel had a heavy record, even by prison standards. The prison authorities wanted to send him to the evangelicals, but he resisted. Among the “little brothers,” as he calls them, there was too much kindness.
The cleaner of the last of the pavilions took pity on him. She received him and, little by little, Ezekiel began his resurrection. Since he was a fighter and liked to stay in shape, he resumed his exercise routine. He soon noticed that when he finished his training schedule, other inmates went out to play rugby. He didn't know the sport, but he liked that there were clashes and a lot of physical dispute. His first forays were unsuccessful, he fought and caused problems on the court. The coaches of the Legionnaires, the Campana prison rugby team that is associated with the Espartanos Foundation, explained the spirit of the sport to him and tamed his character. Until Ezekiel understood.
“Rugby completely changed my life,” he says today, 28 years old, with two children aged 10 and 11 and a stable job in the logistics area of ​​the Dass Group. Between this present of a young worker and that past of a prisoner who found in sport a way out of the anger accumulated during years of confinement there was another defining moment: his release into freedom.
Ezequiel left prison on July 1, 2021, with all seven years of his sentence served. “They never gave me a benefit and, although I had changed, I understand that I did not deserve it,” he explains. The first thing he did once he got out was go see his grandmother Carmen, whom he adored, to show her that what they said was true: he had recovered and was no longer the bad boy who showed bravery by hanging out with adults who urged him on. to commit a crime Afterwards, he began the parade around his parents' house, where he had settled, with family and friends who also wanted to see the same thing. After the five days of celebrations and reunions, Ezequiel began the arduous task of looking for work. His resume was brief: some jobs like delivery as a teenager and an empty space between 17 and 24, his time imprisoned. He asked the Spartans for help, trained in a work placement program to understand the basic notions of work culture, which he was unaware of, and joined the Dass Group. Today he lives in San Fernando and is still involved in rugby. He plays center for the Espartanos en Libertad team, which has just debuted in the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) tournaments with a second place in a business team tournament. “Now I enjoy my children and I enjoy the club, I love being with the Spartans,” he says.


“Sport was the only thing I had to get rid of all my anger”

When the police stopped the bus in which she was coming from the pediatrician with her 3-year-old daughter, Estefanía Arévalo understood that it was the end. She had been on the run for six months and had an arrest warrant for a robbery that she claims she did not commit.

The father of Francesca, her daughter, had been arrested and accused her of being the co-author of a robbery. Estefanía, who was 21 years old and was in Mar del Plata when she found out that the police were looking for her, returned to Buenos Aires and first hid in a hotel. Then, at a friend's villa, in Garín. She was going there she was coming back when she fell.

For three and a half months she was imprisoned in a police station in Vicente López and her main concern was Francesca. Since the girl's father was also in prison, she had to leave her in the care of her mother, who lived far away from her and barely knew her granddaughter. She was heartbroken, she cried and refused to eat. Thanks to the help of a friend of hers who gave her a lawyer, Estefanía managed to get her out of jail a couple of times a week with the excuse of a medical appointment that she took advantage of to see her daughter.

But then came his transfer to unit 47, in San Martín. He entered the prison on a rainy day and saw a women's rugby team training in the downpour. “They were cute,” Estefania laughs. Soon, however, she was part of that group of women behind an oval ball. “I clung to sports because it was the only thing I had to get all my anger out,” she remembers. Soon the Spartan pavilion was inaugurated, and Estefanía, who played on the wing, found her space. She trained three times a week, but she didn't see her daughter. Francesca was still in the care of her mother, who could not take her to the prison. Furthermore, Estefanía did not want her daughter to see her in those conditions. She knew they would both end up crying. She didn't even ask for photos, she just communicated with her sister to make sure she was okay. It was her way of staying strong.

Following her lawyer's recommendation, she signed an admission of guilt and on July 4, 2022, two years after she was arrested, she was granted house arrest. She arrived at her mother's house without telling anyone and knocked on the different doors. “It was like Chavo's pension,” she laughs. Finally, she was reunited with her daughter. “I spent three days looking at it, almost without sleeping. And Francesca wouldn't even let me go to the bathroom,” she gets excited.

The joy of being reunited with her daughter was soon accompanied by despair at not being able to support her. Her house arrest forced her to spend eight months without leaving the house, which prevented her from working. Lacking resources, she took a job as a cashier in a restaurant, until one Saturday at 7 pm she was notified at her house that the police were looking for her. She arrived as quickly as she could, she explained that she had to feed her daughter and the police officer warned her not to run away from her again.

After her sentence was completed, the Spartans helped her find employment. Today she works at a YPF service station and continues playing rugby. “She relaxes me a lot, she distracts me, it's like an escape,” she says. Her daughter Francesca also plays.


“I was a bad prisoner”

Carlos Ponce had two jobs. By day he was a butcher's assistant in his father's business. At night, thief. At 18, the second of his occupations took him to prison, convicted of qualified robbery. “I was a bad prisoner,” he recalls today, at 38 years old. In many of the wards in which he was assigned, he was the point of reference for the inmates - he had a "cleaning card", as they say in the jargon - and he confronted other inmates, or the authorities.

At the end of his sentence he was transferred to San Martín prison and the first morning he heard screams. He thought they were fighting, but when he looked out he saw a group of prisoners rolling around on the floor, fighting for a strange oval ball. It was a Spartan training session. Carlos had never played rugby, but he found out from acquaintances he had in the prison - his brother-in-law, neighbors in the neighborhood - and he joined.

They drew his positions on a sheet of paper and, since he was fast, he positioned himself on the wing. Rugby, he says, changed his life. “It left my mind blank, it got me out of trouble,” he remembers. In the wards through which he had passed, sleepless nights were common, with one hand on his face, under the tension of knowing that he could be attacked at any moment. In that of the Spartans, however, he lived peacefully. “Tomás tereré and you're a fool. You leave your sneakers and the next day they are still there,” he laughs.

On December 18, 2015, not one day before the end of his sentence, Carlos regained his freedom and began to face a new challenge: not to commit crimes again. He spent the whole summer at the house and started to get nervous. His background made it difficult for him to find work and he was afraid of falling again. “Crime opened up two paths for me: going back to jail or being found two meters under the ground,” he reflects.

“I want to work, Coco,” he told the founder of the Spartans in March 2016. Thanks to the efforts of the foundation he got a job in a factory and, at the same time, his current job at Banco Macro. “Being a worker,” says Carlos, “is something new for me. “I was always surrounded by criminals and now it fills my heart that my colleagues at the bank invite me to their homes.”


Anyone can join the Spartans as a volunteer by participating in training, teaching the values ​​of sport, physically preparing and organizing sporting events. They can also provide a second opportunity through the Entretiempo work internship program, or by hiring a Spartan. For more information, write to info@fundacionespartanos.org or enter www.fundacionespartanos.org.


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