Sunday, August 26, 2007

Oh please: be real!

Feared gang renounces its crime crown

Ecuador's mafia go straight in government pact

Rory Carroll in Quito
Sunday August 26, 2007
The Observer

Naming themselves after Aztec and Inca warriors, they deal in drugs, gun down rivals and glory in the memory of a cannibal jail feast. They are the Latin Kings, a Hispanic gang that has spread across the Americas and Europe.

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.

Now, however, thousands of members want to enter mainstream society and go legit. An ambitious transformation attempt is unfolding in their heartland, Ecuador, where former gangsters are launching new careers as social workers, entrepreneurs and fashion designers. 'It will be a struggle, but nothing is impossible. We can make this work,' said Jostyn, a 29-year-old gang leader in the capital, Quito. 'We can live in the legal world and still have respect.'

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,,2156350,00.html


Polythene Pam said...

Wow, that is incredible. I could hardly believe it was a real news article when I was reading it. It does sound like it won't be as simple and good as we would all hope, but that is one of the most encouraging things I've read about Ecuador in a long time. I'll be praying. It's really exciting.

katie said...

what the heck!? that's weird.why would the latin kings do that?

Mom said...

Wow. I never knew the Latin Kings originated in Ecuador! I do have the same question as Katie and my optimistic hope is outweighed by a great deal of long can the LK spokesman keep calmly passive about the Netas shooting on them?

Béthany said...

It started as a Chicago gang but most of its American leaders are in jail with life sentences. The bulk of it's growth and power now comes from Ecuador, and ecuadorians who travel to Spain and the US and bring their gang affiliation with them. One city in Spain, I can't remember if it was Madrid or Barcelona, passed a law like Correa's, making the LK an official cultural organization after they signed a treaty to cease the violence. The other city criticized the decision heavily.

Timothy or Lillian said...

hard to imagine it is going to work for long if the base issues that give rise to the exixtence of the gangs aren't dealt with andif the gov't shows favortism to one gang over another that will cause problems too. It is good to try and lets hope this does bring about a change of attitud.

Kent said...

The article rang some little bell in my head that said I had heard such things before. I did a quick search on gangs going legit. I found an introduction to a podcast with a reformed LA gang member. My guess is that politicians and gangs have joined forces periodically over the decades, sometimes for real, sometimes not. Hearts can be changed!

Former LA gang member Aqeela Sherrills was instrumental in the historic 1992 gang truce between the Crips and Bloods in the aftermath of the Rodney King