In Ecuador, gang members trade guns for scissors and nail polish
How a former nun gets rival gangs to run their own legit businesses.
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By the entrance, a young man designs a T-shirt logo with graffiti paint. In the back, amid the hip-hop music and paint fumes, tattooed young men with baggy pants and baseball caps compile an order of worksheets for schools.
The print shop is part of an organization of small businesses, including a bakery, a beauty parlor, and a dance school, with a surprising business model – they are entirely run by Ecuadorean street gang members, many of whom were once rivals.
At the heart of this operation that has helped produce a dramatic drop in neighborhood crime, is a former nun and school teacher, Nelsa Curbelo, from Uruguay.
Upon first glance, the gentle, grandmotherly Nelsa – as everyone calls her – looks out of place among the gangster paraphernalia. But later, watching her comfortable interactions with the tough-looking youths, the affection and respect she commands is evident.
"[Nelsa] supports us a lot, she gives us advice and we are very grateful. We are here because of her," says Daniel Legovia with a smile as he takes a break from his print shop duties. "Before I was always getting in trouble. If we weren't throwing rocks at each other, we were shooting each other, but now, thank God, we've changed."
In 1999, Nelsa founded Ser Paz ("Being Peace"), an organization that helps gangs reintegrate into society by providing professional training and education, as well as outlets for creative expression. Gangs can apply for microloans from Ser Paz to start their own small businesses, so long as they agree to give up crime and to work with rival gang members. Now five gangs boasting such names as the "Latin Kings" and "Iron Nation" work side by side, their old rivalries buried under the buzz of shop talk.
"Before, my life consisted of only three things: sleeping, doing drugs, and eating," says Adrian Lopez, now a workshop promoter for Ser Paz. "They gave me a second chance in my life and most of all I saw the opportunity to help many young people, who like me, were caught up in drugs and street life."
With a population of over 3 million, Guayaquil is home to more than 200 gangs and 60,000 gang youths. At one point, there were on average 30 gang murders per month in the Zona Roja neighborhood.
Violence, according to Nelsa, is often a fact of life in these neighborhoods. Conflicts are typically resolved with punches, kicks, and guns. But most gang members, she adds, are also loving parents. "They really love and defend their children, and in that there is a real door of opportunity."
Before Nelsa launched Ser Paz, she worked for an Ecuadorean human rights organization that probed abuse in the military and police force. Then, having decided to turn her focus to the prevention of violence, she spent two years walking the streets in order to listen to the young people of the neighborhood that would become the center of the Ser Paz experiment.
Nelsa developed a deeper understanding of the residents' lives and she saw that there were positive forces that had brought the young people together. The youths, she says, have organized themselves into groups as an effective means of survival in an "unfair and unequal society."
"What brings them together is the need for affection. It's not an economic need.... It's the need to have a group where they feel like equals, where they're protected, where there's solidarity," says Nelsa.