TACOMA, Washington — In the early 2000s, Ecuador’s crime and homicide rates were some of the highest in Latin America. Much of the violence seen was due to the amount of gang activity that was present in Ecuador. One group, in particular, the Sacred Tribe Atahualpa of Ecuador (the STAE), was found responsible for 27% of all the homicides in the city of Guayaquil. As a result of these rates, Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, sought to end this violence with an unprecedented security policy that legalized several street gangs within Ecuador in 2007. Before the legalization of gangs in Ecuador, street gangs were seen as outcasts and delinquents in Ecuadorian society. By legalizing and legitimizing the street gangs as formal citizens, they have become engaged in Ecuadorian society in a very productive fashion. These street gangs have contributed to the fall in poverty rates and the expansion of youth integration projects. Furthermore, these strategies were highly successful in the transformation of the groups from violent outcasts into “cultural street organizations.”
Steps to Legalization
According to the National Police, more than 400 street gangs were active in the province of Guayas and around 178 street gangs were present in the province of Pichincha. Due to the large population of street gangs, the state chose integrative and holistic strategies rather than tactics of repression and prevention.
Repressive approaches proved to be ineffective and, in many cases, led to an increase in violence. The legalization policies began to focus on strategies that encouraged collaboration with formal state institutions and worked toward integrating street gangs as “cultural street organizations.” To do so, the Ecuadorian government focused its efforts on job creation and educational outreach.
The first step to implement these new policies were targeting the cooperation of the larger street gangs in Ecuador. For example, the Ecuadorian government reached out to the STAE, the Ñetas and Masters of the Street/Crazy Souls and encouraged them to form “pro-social associations” through activities, such as sports competitions, music events and job training opportunities co-organized with public and private agencies.
The Social Benefits of Legalization
The social benefits that were a result of this policy were more successful than could have been predicted. Not only did these strategies aim to integrate the gangs into communities as formal citizens, but also sought to improve the relationships between the gangs and the police, as well as the gangs and government agencies. Before the implementation of the legalization initiative, the police force often targeted gang members as a result of the “Zero Tolerance” policies.
Today, members of these groups are not only able to walk the streets wearing their colors proudly but are also able to hold meetings with their members, interact with state officials and transmit their goals beyond the street level. These cultural associations have remade themselves in such a way that allows gang members to qualify for grants and benefit from social programming within their communities.
This legalization has not only resulted in many benefits for the cultural street organizations but it also has greatly affected the homicide and violence rates across Ecuador. In 2007, the homicide rates were at an all-time high at 15.35 per 100,00 people. Since the enactment of the legalization policies, within 10 years, rates have fallen to around 5 per 100,000 people.
The legalization policies were major contributors to the drastic fall in homicide rates. The legalization of the STAE, the largest street gang in Ecuador at the time, created a domino-like effect on other street gangs. The second-largest group, the Ñetas, followed in their footsteps toward legalization soon after. Soon, many other street gangs realized that being legalized was not a sign of weakness but was desirable and beneficial. As the domino effect continued, street gangs that were once at war are now operating together to better their communities.
The Economic Benefits of Legalization
The gang legalization policies also had immense economic benefits. For example, because of the growing youth population within the gangs, many of the strategies implemented involved focused efforts toward the youth in providing outreach programs as well as educational advancement opportunities. Furthermore, marginalized groups and communities were provided access to jobs, job training and education.
Years later, the policies have helped many of the cultural street organization members attend college. A number of members were provided job opportunities with the government and the police force or provided aid to attend college to pursue an education in law, social work or nursing.
Not only have the members benefited from these policies, but Ecuador as a whole has benefited, as well. The interaction has been mutually beneficial for these members of the street organizations and society. The STAE have been major beneficiaries of the economic progress in Ecuador. For example, because of the interaction between the cultural street organization, the government and their communities, more than 1.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty and the minimum wage has doubled across Ecuador. Furthermore, the organizations have worked toward the enactment of programs such as youth integration projects, initiatives to combat drug trafficking and have helped raise funds for earthquake victims.
Replication of the Legalization Strategies
Although the legalization of gangs in Ecuador has been highly successful, the replication process could be difficult for other countries. The development of these policies has evolved over the span of more than a decade. Furthermore, the success rates not only come from the policies themselves, but also the cooperation and reform of the police force, as well as effective sources of aid from the Ecuadorian government.
Not only was it necessary for there to be a relationship of trust between the government and the street gangs, but it was also necessary that the newly legalized gangs be taken seriously as community organizations and formal citizens. However, that does not mean that other countries should not attempt this new model. It is not an easy model to follow, but with the application of proper strategies and the investment in creating a relationship of trust, this model could be beneficial both socially and economically for many countries around the world.
– Caroline Dunn