Is there room for redemption in Caracas's hyperviolent barrios? The better question is...is there room for anything else?

Miguelón says he first fired a gun when he was 12. Nobody around him was shocked: plenty of people in his family made a living as criminals. Miguelón says it was his uncles who turned him onto crime. His uncles were murdered.

Their murderers wanted to kill Miguelón, too.

He says he’s been shot at least ten times. Most of these bullets were intended to kill him, but somehow, he survived. Once it was a friend of his who shot him at a party, from the back: three shots. Some unresolved drug tiff, apparently. Later, at the hospital, after two operations, they told him that he would never walk again.

But he’d survive.

Maybe he was just lucky guy; maybe God had other ideas. Miguelón did not die young, like his father, who killed himself after finding his wife with another man, shooting first the lovers and then himself. He says it was he who gave his dad that gun.

He sold his belongings to pay for rehab.

But Miguelón now has a new family to take care of: the one he started.

It was his wife who, as he puts it, me enderezó: straightened him out. And it was after the birth of his first son that he finally decided to change. Love made it possible.

After the hospital, after he was left paralyzed, he says “a new Miguel” started to grow inside of him. He sold his belongings to pay for rehab. He started to go to the barrio’s church and, there, found God. Slowly, painfully, he began to walk again, with crutches. And he also began to teach basketball.

But basketball came much later. Learning to walk took a long time. Forgiveness, too. Forgiveness for being almost murdered, forgiveness for his injuries, forgiveness to his supposed friend who almost turned into his assassin. And, just like food and medicine, forgiveness is in short supply in Venezuela. Especially in Venezuela’s tough barrios.

If you can’t forgive, you can’t stop the cycle of retribution: you tried to kill me, I kill you, your brother then kills me, my cousin kills your brother.  

Miguelón reflects that maybe, if those bullets hadn’t reached his back, he’d be either dead or in prison. He wouldn’t have his family, or his students. Because Miguelón, whether in crutches or in his wheelchair, started a basketball school where he trains kids from 6 to 19 years old, both girls and boys.

It’s not only a school, though; it’s a struggle, a battle. He tries to rescue kids who are going through what he went through.

Miguelón has killed people. He’s been in jail. He’s paid to get out of jail as soon as he was caught. He thinks his life was rough because the people around him did not believe in him. They said he was worthless, a criminal in a wheelchair.

How many Miguelons are there? Caracas Mi Convive, an NGO, is out trying to find them. Trying to build “convivencia”, the art of being together, be it through basketball, music, or just spaces to talk, express yourself and play.

How many Miguelóns are there? How many can there be?

None of this is easy. Criminals still need kids helping them out with crime instead of playing sports; kids who have no idea about “alternative” spaces, or no access to them. The “héroes de la convivencia” are out there, but they face a government that’s indifferent or worse, criminal. In the era of the OLP, crime fighting means shooting people you think are criminals, not bringing basketballs into the slums.

How many Miguelóns are there? How many can there be? Can they make a difference?

I don’t know. I know that violence can’t shortcircuit the cycle of violence, it can only feed it.  I know that “a killing solves a killing” is the malandro’s ethos, and the OLP’s as well.  

We need cops who investigate, yes, not deathsquads on the prowl. But by the time a cop is involved at all, it’s too late. We need to engage kids at risk before they go off the edge. We need a Miguelón in every barrio, empowered, supported, honored and put at the center of kids’ lives.