HomeNewsIs Gang Legalization Responsible for Ecuador’s Security Crisis? 

Is Gang Legalization Responsible for Ecuador’s Security Crisis? 


Organized crime and violence in Ecuador have reached new peaks, throwing a controversial gang-legalization policy from the administration of President Rafael Correa (2007-2017) back into the limelight. 

Part of this is related to the violence that led to the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio on August 9, which marked a low point in the deterioration of security in Ecuador. But the debate has conflated organized criminal groups, such as the Lobos and Choneros -- who have expanded from inside prisons, controlling the transnational cocaine trade through the country and pushing the homicide rate to 26 per 100,000 in 2022 -- with street gangs, such as the Latin Kings. 

SEE ALSO: 4 Reasons Why Ecuador Is in a Security Crisis  

Not long ago, Ecuador was considered one of the safest countries in Latin America, with a homicide rate of just 5 per 100,000 in 2017. And at least part of this success was attributed to the country’s innovative approach to handling street gangs: Instead of mass incarceration, the government negotiated with groups like the Latin Kings, Ñetas, and Masters of the Street, and recognized them as legitimate social organizations.  

The “legalization” process led to a demobilization of the gangs and a sharp drop in homicides. But after Villavicencio’s murder, these policies have been vehemently criticized for legitimizing gangs’ presence in the country and leading to the extreme levels of violence seen today. 

In their 2020 study on gang legalization titled “Social Control and the Gang: Lessons from the Legalization of Street Gangs in Ecuador,” criminologists David Brotherton and Rafael Gude of the City University of New York explored how Ecuador’s legalization policies affected gang structure and the groups’ relationship to society. 

InSight Crime spoke with Brotherton to learn more about the history of gang legalization in Ecuador and examine its impact on the current security situation. 

InSight Crime (IC): What made the gang legalization process in Ecuador different? 

David Brotherton (DB): The gangs were being taken seriously by the government and no longer seen as villains of the peace. They were seen as people with positive contributions and the capacity to self-organize as part of civil society.  

As the groups began to have different conceptions of the state, they also had different conceptions of themselves. Now, they’re not outlaws. They're very legitimate, self-organized young people who are free to develop skill sets and knowledge bases. 

They came from the most marginalized communities in Ecuador, so they were recognized for their insider knowledge of these places. A number of them were recruited into the ministries of justice and the interior, while others worked very closely with leading consultants in the government. 

And the government and gangs had different channels of communication that were always open. When you're dealing with street groups, there's so much drama on the street, so much that can go on either within the group or between groups. These channels of communication made sorting out conflict a lot easier because you could step in before conflicts spiraled out of control. 

IC:  Homicides related to gang violence dropped considerably. Why was this policy so successful? 

DB: The whole concept of gangs changed, which was incredible to see. This really has not happened anywhere else. In the United States, we talk about how people leave the gang. One of the ways they leave the gang is to “mature out” of it. Members get older, they find a partner, they have children, they find some kind of legitimate work, and they ease out.  

But, if you're in a group that is being prized by society and you see your friends actually making it for the first time in their lives, why would you leave the group? It's become really instrumental to your own social and psychological development. So, in Ecuador, they didn't mature out, they actually “matured in.” 

IC: To what extent were the gang legalization efforts directed towards drug trafficking groups such as the Lobos and Choneros? 

DB: They weren’t. Drug trafficking groups were much smaller at the time.  

There's an obvious attraction for people in very marginal areas to be part of drug trafficking groups. I don’t know if it was intentional, but legalized gangs were thriving in numbers and were bringing kids into their orbit who would have otherwise joined the drug trade. This starved the drug trade of a lot of the kids who are now in it. 

IC: With the change in administration in 2017, what became of the legalization policies? 

DB: 2017 was a turning point. Within two months of taking power, President Lenín Moreno (2017-2021) abandoned many of Correa’s policies. There was already stability with the gang legalization process, but they just pulled the plug and made a deal allowing the cartels to basically take over the prisons. 

The gang legalization policies became nonexistent. The connections between the government and the gangs evaporated. In 2019, I was talking with ang members in] the Masters of the Street, and they told me that all those connections to the state had ended. They were on their own now.  

IC: Some of the political discourse during elections has been that the gang legalization policy is part of the reason why Ecuador is in the current situation. How much are these policies to blame? 

DB: Saying there’s a relationship between the current security crisis and the gang legalization program completely denies history. Just look at the homicide rates from 2007 to 2017. It was incredible. Year after year, regardless of the economic state of the country, it went down.  

Even in the areas near the border with Colombia, which were always the most violent because there were a lot of drugs coming back and forth, homicides were way down. 

IC: Homicides have also plummeted in El Salvador with President Nayib Bukele’s heavy handed security crackdowns. Why do you think public opinion has shifted towards Bukele-type strategies?  

DB: People are desperate for peace and security. They want to be able to move through their neighborhoods without being extorted and mugged, so I understand why they go for these sorts of drastic, charismatic figures.  

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Escalates Gang Crackdown With New Measures 

But these leaders’ strategies crush the manifestation of the problem without actually dealing with the problem at its root causes. Security policies must end marginalization, empower people, and include people in every aspect of citizenship.  

C: Bukele’s strategy has led to a drastic reduction of violence very quickly. Correa's policies took a decade but achieved similar results. Why is Bukele’s model generating headlines while Correa's was widely overlooked? 

DB: Because [Correa’s] is counter hegemonic. Where do Latin American countries get their criminal justice policies from? They get strategies, training, and uniforms from the United States. The lessons about how to fight crime and how to keep the peace in Latin America very much follow a North American model.  

Tough-on-crime strategies can work in the short term, but they don't deal with the long-term causes. The middle class is anxious. The working class is losing its footing. People come with quick fixes that are very seductive. 

IC: Ecuador's prison crisis is on the extreme side in the region, but it's hard to find an example of a country in Latin America that does not have a prison issue. How can Latin American nations plot a new path in prison policy? 

DB: Experiments are important. Some experiments in Brazil are making strides towards empowering inmates. There was also a reform movement in the Dominican Republic -- which had a disastrous system -- they created what they called “model prisons.” Thousands of inmates went into the system, and it actually had clean water and well-trained guards. It wasn't left to the prisoners to rule the prison, which is what happens in many Latin American countries.  

They have to bring in some drastic reforms. First, let people out massively. Imprisonments for nonviolent drug offenses are rampant, and over 30% of the prison population in Ecuador is detained without trial. They also need to let out anybody over 65 or 70 years old. Most people get involved in crime up to about 30 or 35 years old, then it drops off.  

You also must do everything you can to stop people getting there in the first place. Ecuador should bring back community justice programs that sorted out problems before the police got involved.  

Ecuador was more innovative than any other country in Latin America for a period of time. I'd never seen anything like it. The sooner they can get back to that, the better. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity and fluidity. 

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