Ecuador legalized gangs. Murder rates plummeted.

By Sigal Samuel

Members of the Latin Kings gang pose in 1997 in New York City.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In 2007, the crime-riddled nation of Ecuador did something surprising: It legalized the gangs that had been the source of much of the violence. Then something even more surprising happened over the next decade: Murder rates plummeted.

Ecuador’s approach to violence reduction is about as far away as you can get from America’s, which tends to criminalize gangs. To be clear, just being a member of a gang is not illegal. But because many gang members are known to engage in illegal activity, US law enforcement targets people it suspects of being members. It uses large gang databases (especially common in cities like New York and Chicago) to round up young people, often from poor communities of color. They may be deported or imprisoned for years. When we talk about criminalizing gangs, we’re talking about this punitive approach.

In Ecuador, the unprecedented decision to legalize gangs across the country was basically a decision to adopt the opposite attitude. The country allowed the gangs to remake themselves as cultural associations that could register with the government, which in turn allowed them to qualify for grants and benefit from social programming, just like everybody else.

This approach appealed to David Brotherton, a sociologist at the City University of New York who’s been arguing since the 1990s that US policy wrongly pathologizes gang members. So in 2017, a decade after Ecuador legalized gangs, he headed over there to conduct ethnographic research on major groups like the Latin Kings and Queens.

It turned out they’d undergone a stunning transformation. The members were still very active in their gangs, but these were functioning more like social movements or cultural groups. Previously violent Latin Kings were working in everything from catering to crime analysis. And they were collaborating with other gangs they’d warred with in the past.

Brotherton is preparing to head back to Ecuador for the next phase of his multi-year research, which will focus on a gang called Masters of the Street. He just won a Guggenheim Foundation grant in support of that work, which is how I learned about it. What he’s discovered has the potential to upend the mainstream US approach to deviance.

I spoke to Brotherton about what he saw on the ground in Ecuador and whether he thinks that model can work in other Latin American countries and even in the US. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sigal Samuel

How did you get interested in studying street gangs in Ecuador?

David Brotherton

In the late 1990s, I was working with a bunch of groups in New York City, especially the Latin Kings. This was during the period of [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani and his policy of “zero tolerance.” I wrote a book on it in 2004. I thought that was the end of the story.

Then I got an email from a social worker in Barcelona who said, “We have a group here called the Latin Kings, and we haven’t had gangs like this in Spain. Where are they coming from? Can you help us?” So I went to give a talk there. I said: “I don’t think you should do what they do in America, this ‘zero tolerance,’ because you won’t get to the root of the problem. You need to engage them.”

They took that seriously and talked to the City Council of Barcelona. In 2004 or 2005, the council proclaimed that these groups would be known not as gangs, but as cultural groups. They found that the more they engaged the groups, the fewer problems they had. Then the city of Genoa in Italy adopted the same approach. They semi-legalized them, and the same thing happened.

Then I got a call from Ecuador. In 2007, there was optimism there because [Rafael] Correa had won [presidential] elections on the platform of the Citizens’ Revolution: He said instead of just focusing on law and order, security will be based on social security. Someone close to Correa said, “What will we do about these street gangs? Their membership is in the thousands.” They came up with the radical policy of legalization. That took the Spanish thing a step further, because this was national, not just one city. The gangs responded very positively to that engagement.

Sigal Samuel

And that’s when Ecuador’s murder rates started going down, right? In your 2017 study, you note that Ecuador’s murder rates fell drastically after it legalized gangs — from 15.35 per 100,000 people in 2011 to 5 per 100,000 people in 2017. To what extent can you show that that was actually caused by gang legalization, as opposed to other factors?

David Brotherton

Statistically, you can only show correlation. And, actually, at first I thought maybe the crime rate was going down because the country had reformed the police. But we spent a year traveling around Ecuador and interviewing all the [gang] leaders. And when you hang out for a while, you see how differently they respond to conflicts now. For example, they [the Latin Kings] put on one of the biggest hip hop concerts ever, and they worked with other previously antagonistic gangs on the project.

We found there was this fascinating phenomenon going on of peaceful coexistence. A number of the senior guys were working with the government or in the police force. Some were doing crime analysis. Some were in college studying constitutional law and social work. Some were getting into entrepreneurship, becoming caterers or graphic designers.

Sigal Samuel

How did legalization change the relationships within individual gangs, for example between men and women?

David Brotherton

The Latin Queens say they feel positively about the possibilities they have in the gangs since legalization. The more power the women get — and the women are very powerful, they’re in leadership positions — it helps in the positive transition of the group. Women soften the gangs to a certain degree, especially if there are kids involved. The family instinct kicks in. If you go to a large gang meeting, you might find about 700 or 800 people there. They bring their children — there’s maybe 150 kids.

Sigal Samuel

This sounds really positive, but there must have been challenges too. What did not go as hoped?

David Brotherton

Well, not everybody is on board. A lot of members of the public still believe in a more pathological model that says these are deviants and they’re not as prosocial as they represent themselves to be. The group members understand that stigma. They say they have to prove themselves.

It also depends on the city. Guayaquil is a much more conservative city than Quito, so that’s not been easy. The politicos there don’t like the policy [of legalizing gangs]. They have to respect it because it’s federal, but they don’t put much money into it.

Sigal Samuel

How important is money here? In 2007, Ecuador was doing well economically. There was a lot of oil money coming in. Does a government need to have a lot of cash on hand when kicking off an initiative like this, so it can fund social programs that will support the gangs’ transition?

David Brotherton

These programs don’t cost a lot of money. They can do amazing things with just a little bit of money and political will. The government ministries spent a bit of money on social and cultural events. The minister of culture set up a train that went to the poorest communities in Ecuador to do street graffiti and art. There was a job training grant, and a grant to set up a community center. The Catholic University of Quito paid for 15 Latin Queens to study to become nurses. They never would’ve been able to do that before legalization.

Sigal Samuel

And it sounds like over time, those relatively small changes have had ripple effects.

David Brotherton

Yes, and a big part of that is because the policy was in place for 10 years [by the time we did our study], so trust and long-term relationships had a chance to build up. Some of these guys joined the groups when they were 18, and now they’re 28. They become the old hens and they teach the younger members, “Hey, this is how we do things now.” We call that “maturing in.”

Sigal Samuel

Is there a risk that gangs will be criminalized again when new political parties come into power?

David Brotherton

Yes, big time. When Lenín Moreno took power [after the 2017 presidential elections] everyone was wondering what would happen. All the people we used to work with got purged. They put new people in power.

They didn’t abolish the policy, though. Right now there’s a decent relationship.

The groups are working with universities, and they’re trying to convince the government that this should be a long-term policy, regardless of who’s in power, because it’s working.

Sigal Samuel

How universalizable do you think Ecuador’s approach is? Can it work in other Latin American countries?

David Brotherton

The mayor of Barranquilla, in Colombia, is planning to try to replicate the model. I totally think it could succeed in Colombia. About five years ago, the [Ecuadorian] gang members went to Bogotá to relay their experiences. They also went to Nicaragua and met with the police and community leaders there. Now they want to go to El Salvador.

Sigal Samuel

Do you think it could work in the US?

David Brotherton

Of course it could! Our approach, which we export to the rest of the world, is very moralistic and it’s very binary — either you’re in or you’re out. But it wasn’t always that way. Historically, we used to have street social workers [who worked with gang members].

Gang repression came about in the mid-1970s and got a massive boost in the War on Drugs. And right now things are getting much more complicated because of the deportation laws. So now you can only work with people in gangs if they’ve decided to leave the gangs. But if we had a rational policy …

Well, we’re already doing part of it through the Credible Messenger Initiative that’s been tried in New York City, and right now I’m working on it in Washington, DC, too. It involves working with ex-cons, some of them were gang members, and they become transformative mentors to kids in the system or just coming out of it. An evaluation in New York showed that recidivism fell among kids [involved in the mentorship program], and the same happened in DC.

Sigal Samuel

Do you see your research as part of a bigger movement pushing for other kinds of legalization or decriminalization — of drugs, or sex work, for example?

David Brotherton

Absolutely. It’s all about a progressive, rational policy for social control. There’s this idea known as “deviance amplification” — basically, when you want to stop a behavior, the worst thing you can do is prohibit it. Social inclusion is the most productive means of social control. You have to have a system where most of people’s engagement with the authorities is as positive as possible.

The state can’t just say, “This is the American dream, you can do it, so do it.” The state has to say, “I want you, and I’m going to help you in these concrete ways, and I’m going to win your trust.”

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