By Boris Miranda
In some New York neighborhoods, wearing yellow and black with a golden crown symbol can get you killed. But in Quito, Ecuador, clothing representing the Latin Kings is no cause for concern, nor does it peg you as a criminal.
The Latin Kings are one of several gangs that will celebrate their 11th anniversary as a “legalized” organization in Ecuador, an unprecedented process that has helped to reduce homicide rates by more than 70% in the country.
Now, as BBC Mundo reports, the golden crown on a black background is synonymous with quality food instead of violence.
In Ecuador, the Latin Kings (also known as the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation or ALKQN) have also transformed themselves into a small catering business called Kings Catering.
The transformation was not easy. But international organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have been studying and reporting the results already achieved in just a decade.
The IDB reported that the gang legalization process helped to reduce Ecuador’s murders from a rate of 15 per 100,000 people in 2011 to less than 5 per 100,000 in 2017.
Manuel Zúñiga is the president of the Latin Kings in Ecuador, going by the aliases “King Majestic” and “the Inca.”
He learned how to handle weapons, steal cars and survive prison, but now he is the legal representative of his gang, or “nation” as they are called within the Latin Kings. Zúñiga also works at a private university, the Catholic University of Quito (Universidad Católica de Quito), and even has his own office.
He no longer wears baggy pants, although he still wears his group’s colors with pride as well as the necklaces he earned as a Latin Kings leader.
Zúñiga does not hide his tattoos either, saying that each symbolizes either the values of his group or his personal experiences.
“Our transition was thanks to the unity and maturity of all of us. It hasn’t been easy, but it was the most positive for our nation,” the gang’s president explained.
He added that the kings and queens were “tired of so much abuse and discrimination,” but also that “it was very difficult to convince the brothers because we lived in a world of violence.”
The gang member — as he still considers himself to be — said that in the beginning, real divisions emerged.
“Now that they’re seeing our positive steps, a lot of brothers are joining in,” Zúñiga told BBC Mundo while traveling from the university to his neighborhood in a car driven by one of these very brothers.
When they started, only 20 gang members decided to “legalize.” Their numbers have now swelled to over 1,000 Latin Kings and Queens from various groups.
Ana Rodríguez, a researcher at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales – FLACSO) whom former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa appointed to be Minister of Culture in 2016, promoted the gang legalization process.
“We began to promote legalization to prevent abuses and support [the gang members’] willingness to avoid violent actions,” she explained.
Rodríguez also said that backing from the Correa administration and the Ecuadorian police in creating employment and training opportunities was crucial.
“One of the main difficulties was changing the gang members’ image, but we did it,” she said.
Zúñiga navigates the halls of Quito’s Catholic University with his Latin Kings brothers.
No one appears shocked to see young people with heavily tattooed arms, printed t-shirts, and long necklaces preparing and serving them food. This afternoon, they are having pesto rice with stuffed chicken.
And Zúñiga believes this is one of their greatest achievements. He and his companions have overcome the stigma through which non-gang members and their country saw them.
Through the efforts of all involved, the Latin Kings not only run a catering business but receive formal education and training in technical areas such as screen printing and computer science.
“They wanted to be trained in practical skills that would help them find employment,” explained Alejandra Delgado, coordinator of the Catholic University’s gang inclusion program.
These are goals they share with the institution, given that they all want the projects they are working on to be long-term and produce their own independent businesses.
While the results of the legalization program are impressive so far, the process has seen setbacks. Violence continues to erupt between groups of young people in Ecuador.
And although police chief Patricio Carrillo recognizes the achievements of the social rehabilitation program, he also warns that it has become difficult to maintain.
Government authorities have also acknowledged that the nationwide reduction in wages is making it hard to provide the same level of support for gang rehabilitation as before.
Another difficulty Carrillo warned about is the emergence of new groups perpetuating violence that do not belong to gangs that have begun their legalization processes.
He also added that the work with the gangs is not the only cause for the reduction in violence and murder rate in Ecuador but also the work the police have done with neighborhood residents.
“Dividing the territory into zones and subzones that we work with directly has built trust,” he told BBC Mundo.
It is strange that the success of Ecuador’s gang legalization program does not seem to have attracted the attention of other Latin American countries.
Experts consulted by BBC Mundo said that this may be due in part to unawareness of the model and in some cases, such as El Salvador, extreme difficulty in shifting public opinion enough for citizens to approve of allocating public resources to gang reinsertion efforts.
One such expert is Rafael Gude, an IDB researcher who co-authored Social Inclusion from Below and who has worked with gangs in both Ecuador and Central America.
“Ecuador had the advantage of going through a good economic period at the beginning of its legalization process. The same likely cannot be said for countries like El Salvador,” he said.
Gude nonetheless added that the model could function very well in other countries with gang issues.
“It has to be a structural change, not just in the government but also the police, which is what happened in Ecuador.”
Credit: BBC Mundo