Lessons from Ecuador’s Legalisation of Street Gangs
For ten years, the Ecuadorian concept of security starkly contrasted to traditional crime prevention models that emphasise the reactive and repressive role of the police. The government legalised gangs, and crime dropped dramatically.
In 2011, the Ecuadorian government launched a country-wide public safety policy called the “National Plan for Integrated Security” as part of the ongoing “Citizens’ Revolution” launched by the administration of Rafael Correa in 2008. This focus on security was necessitated by homicide rates that had reached 21 per 100,000 in the year of Correa’s inauguration. Under the Citizens’ Revolution, a new social contract was forged with one of its most innovative policies: the legalisation of certain street gangs in 2007. By 2016 it was evident that the Ecuadorian approach was working, as the murder rate fell dramatically to 5.6 per 100,000.
From 2016 to 2018, we sought to understand the reasons for this remarkable phenomenon. We listened to the voices of members of the three major street gangs involved in the legalisation process: the Sacred Tribe Atahualpa of Ecuador (STAE or ALKQN), the Asociación Ñetas (Ñetas), and the Masters of the Street. Based on our interviews and observations, we found that changes in notions of the self and identity, gender relations, opportunities for social mobility, and the phenomenon of “maturing in” all contributed to the transformation of the gang into a pro-social street organisation and hence a major mitigating factor in the reduction of violence.
There are several important lessons to learn from this experiment for future policies of progressive social control. First, to legalise the gang was to render it nonviolent while leaving it intact as a group, both structurally and culturally. Second, to recognise the social and cultural capital of the group and to respect its social structure was to empower and encourage it to stay intact but with different, nonviolent goals. Third, as the group changed, losing its criminal notoriety, it still maintained its street credibility now with a different collective identity as a quasi-social movement of the lower classes. Thus, the need to violently enforce its influence on the street was no longer needed nor viable.
Nonetheless, the larger story behind the sustained homicide drop in Ecuador and its relationship to the legalisation of gangs has many factors. Gang legalisation would not have worked without comprehensive police reform, a redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation, and increases in funding for social welfare, employment, and educational programs. Last but not least, the state benefited from a sharp increase in oil revenues in the early years of the administration. But two crucial points were the role of the state as an enabler of gang transformation and the agency of the gangs themselves.
In respect to the former, we cannot emphasise enough how state power works best when it engages its citizens meaningfully rather than coercively. This is significant because of the dominance of more punitive approaches in security. Hence, while Ecuador was one of the few examples of a state creating an alternative to the prevailing mano dura (iron fist) policing model prevalent in Latin America, it was also one of the most successful at violence reduction in the most homicidal region in the world.
Gang members repeatedly spoke of how they were invested in the citizen’s revolution, invited perhaps for the first time to take part in politics, and were no longer relegated to the margins. Their deep appreciation for having been given an opportunity to be socially included led them to cooperate willingly with the government. Thus, far from the notion that they had been successfully “co-opted,” gang leaders and members saw their new relationship with the state as evidence of the rejection of the violent policing and targeting of a previous epoch and of the new possibilities to achieve greater social mobility and acceptance.
While the state’s new approach certainly had clientelistic trappings, it was more that the gangs were incorporated into a relationship of patronage. Thus, while clientelistic relationships are about short-term, opportunistic favours in exchange for votes, what took place in Ecuador was a long-term relationship spanning ten years, during which the gangs transitioned into pro-social paths of development. It was within this space that gangs were able to evolve and grow, moving from social death in the political sphere to becoming a coalition of citizens with a voice.
The Ecuadorian experience was also an example of collective rather than individual desistance from crime, illustrating the potentialities of transforming both group consciousness and organisation if we discard the usual pathological approach to these subcultures. Thus, rather than the state and its agents holding onto the usual race and class stereotypes and the negative assumptions of gang youth in poor communities, we witnessed instead a state’s efforts to reimagine the gang and its practices of engagement. The state systematically harnessed the cultural and social capital of the gang, helping to graft its pro-social qualities onto its aesthetic and cultural identity. In this way, the gang’s members owned this transformation, a form of self-determination, while also experiencing the now positive relationships that developed with the community and society at large.
This success story, unfortunately, petered-out with the election of Lenin Moreno in 2017 and Guillermo Lasso in 2021. During the last two years, Ecuador’s headlines have been filled with news of prison massacres and extreme levels of violence, a departure from the years when it boasted of its freedom from high levels of crime common amongst its neighbours. While the current build-up of an all-out conflict between rival cartels had been in the making for some time, with many leaders of legalised gangs warning policymakers of this potential, it’s important to affirm that gangs and cartels are fundamentally different social actors. Essentially, gangs have largely been dragged into a larger conflict after the state enacted massive cuts in social spending and funding to the prison system. A deadly combination of these neo-liberal policies at the behest of the International Monetary Fund as part of its adjustment edict for Ecuador to gain a loan of $4.2 billion and the abject leadership of the nation’s correctional system (known as SNAI) exponentially strengthened organised crime behind bars which inevitably spilled over to the streets.
Legalisation started as a street-level movement, a gang truce that was fortunate to have the political conditions to turn into a momentous change in crime and social control conceptualisation and policy. While the state initially was disinterested in these radical ideas and needed the encouragement of its allies in academia, policymakers soon realised that legalised gangs could be a bulwark to the growth of organised crime and cartel growth in a country bordered by two of the largest drug-producing nations in the world, Colombia and Peru.
While setbacks in successful policies are normal, the end of legalisation was especially catastrophic given the potential it had shown, and the particularly precarious conditions now accentuated by the pandemic. However, even with these defeats for one of the most innovative violence-reduction policies the world has seen, the lessons are still there for policymakers to take away from the Ecuadorian experiment.
David C. Brotherton is a Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He studies and writes about crime, social control and resistance and is the Director of the Social Change and Transgressive Studies Project https://www.socialchangejohnjay.com/.
Rafael Gude is a field researcher and social analyst in Latin America, trained in anthropology and a fellow at the above project.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.