Feared gang renounces its crime crownEcuador's mafia go straight in government pact
Rory Carroll in Quito
Sunday August 26, 2007
For five decades they have intimidated opponents and baffled authorities with secret rituals, feeding the mystique about their identity and purpose. Dressed in black and yellow, the Kings have been implicated in killings in the US, gang wars in South America and riots in Spain.
The left-wing government of President Rafael Correa has decided to recognise the Latin Kings as a cultural and social organisation, which will now work alongside the police, social services and churches in the slums. Members will retain their distinctive salute - two fingers and a thumb extended to mimic a crown - their oath of allegiance and a hierarchy involving monarchs, treasurers and soldiers. The pact, the culmination of two years of negotiations between gang leaders and the authorities, with academics and clerics acting as mediators, is being touted as a model for the US and Europe.
A ceremony in Quito's council chamber inaugurated the accord last month. The mayor, a government minister and police welcomed about 40 gang members, most wearing baggy jeans and yellow T-shirts, as 'dear boys' who would make Ecuador a better place. Jostyn, who declined to give his surname, presented plaques to several officials, who beamed with pride. When TV cameras panned across the chamber several younger members hid their faces behind baseball caps. On Jostyn's command they all rose to their feet and bellowed allegiance to the Kings.
Critics say that the deal is a blueprint to mollycoddle hoodlums. Supporters say it is an enlightened attempt to tackle a complex problem, but concede transformation will not be easy. As gangsters many of the Kings had money and prestige in the slums of Quito and Guayaquil. There is talk of setting up cybercafes, micro-credit schemes and a fashion label with the initials LK, but going straight will narrow the chances for making easy dollars.
Mainstream society, which has long felt threatened and repelled by the gang, may not accept it has changed, said Nayla Versosa, director of a charity that rehabilitates troubled youth. 'I'm worried they will still be discriminated against when looking for jobs and that some police officers will still harass them.'
A minority faction of the Kings has refused to accept the peace deal and turned on their former comrades. Breakaway members are believed to have been behind a drive-by shooting that narrowly missed killing Jostyn and his followers just hours before the Quito ceremony. 'We know who they are. They have been expelled from the organisation,' said the softly spoken leader, sitting on church steps near the spot of the ambush.
Another potential threat is the Ñetas, a rival gang that has waged bloody turf wars with the Kings. But Wilson Alulema, a police colonel who has negotiated a ceasefire with both gangs, said the Ñetas were on the same path to legalization. 'They also want a normal life.'
Thoughts from Bethany:
I don't know if the admiration and idolatry of the Latin Kings on behalf of the park guys group ever graduated into actual commitment and inclusion in the gang. When I left, there were many rumours of it. There is no way I would be informed if it were the case, partly because everybody in the neighbourhood thinks they are Latin Kings anyway, and partly because I always made it very clear to the guys how distasteful the thought of the gang was to me.
If Correa is taking a constructive approach to the problem, then I am very happy. Putting community and business management responsibilities in their hands sounds interesting. I think, because of the power and reach of the gang, as well as the neighbourhoods most of its members come from, there is the dangerous possibility of the gang taking over ALL cyber cafe business in the squatter areas. They definitely have not had time to develop business ethics. I think there will be a huge temptation of corruption, and power. And the police will definitely do nothing to help them go straight. I do predict a fair amount of police bullying and bribe-fishing, which may destroy any intentions LK businessmen and woman of staying clean.
Who knows. This is far more positive news than the traditional news of murders and drug busts.
So be hopeful