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Sunday, August 26, 2007

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 Netas, 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 Netas were on the same path to legalisation. 'They also want a normal life.'

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