Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

In Ecuador, gang members trade guns for scissors and nail polish

How a former nun gets rival gangs to run their own legit businesses.

(Page 2 of 2)

Her approach to helping them, therefore, was not to draw kids away from the gangs, but to give the gangs a different purpose. "It is important that they remain in their groups, because I think the groups are valid, have interesting standpoints, and I think society could learn a lot from these groups."

Skip to next paragraph

"They have their own codes. They have their colors. They have their symbols ... it's just the same thing as a nation, and the most amazing thing is that they call themselves nations," says Beatriz Seisdedos, a Spanish student who studied conflict resolution under Nelsa at a local university. "Someone who is able to create a flag, to create their own belief system, can create a lot of things for the society in which he or she lives."

Nelsa found that the criminal aspect of gang culture stemmed from a profound need for youth to be recognized in their society. She recalls one phrase in particular: "They said, 'If we can't be the best of the best, then we're going to be the best of the worst.' "

Today, the small businesses offer a way for gang members to take pride in their lives and gain financial security. Eva Napa works in the barber shop, where they offer a range of services including braiding, styling, dyeing, manicures, and pedicures. "We are young. I'm a mom and ... we now have work and a way to provide for our families, which is the most important." Her dream is to open a number of branches of the salon throughout the city.

Outside the Ser Paz office, there's a cacophony of construction noise. Since Nelsa began her work to much acclaim and media fanfare, the municipal government has stepped in to do its part to clean up the barrio's dilapidated buildings and roads.

The success is not only anecdotal. After six months of the program, the Polytechnic University of Ecuador conducted a survey and found that crime had decreased by 60 percent in the Zona Roja. Today, Nelsa claims, incidents of violent crime are rare.

Getting rid of the gang members' guns was never part of her plan, but one day, Nelsa received a surprise telephone call. She was invited to a house that she describes as "very, very poor," and was led upstairs to where there was just one bed and one bathroom. A couple came out, grabbed a shoebox and began to fill it with hand guns. Then one of them turned to her and asked, "Now what do we do?" Nelsa was stunned. She had no idea.

So the gang members came up with one: They decided to surrender their guns to the police. To be sure that the weapons couldn't end up back on the streets, they held a symbolic ceremony, placing 60 guns in the street and crushed them with a stream roller. "This really scared me," Nelsa admits, "because experts had told us that when a youngster surrenders their gun, usually they don't live more than six months. People on the street make sure they're taken out. A gun is ... a passport to walk down the street in peace. Relinquishing it is like relinquishing your family."

In the three years since the ceremony, however, no gang member who participated has had an attempt on his life.

On a recent afternoon, dozens of youths cram into a school computer lab for a small award ceremony honoring gang leaders for mediating a dispute between two rival gangs in the province of Esmeraldas. One gang had shot a member of their rival, an incident that could have spiraled into all-out warfare, but Ser Paz gang leaders, using only words, negotiated a peace deal between the warring factions.

With press cameras flashing, five Ser Paz members are honored with white helmets placed on their heads by Nelsa and local officials. The honorees are dubbed the "White Helmets of the United Nations," a nod to the gangs calling themselves nations. And White Helmets? Unlike the blue-helmeted UN forces that use guns, Nelsa explains, they do not. "They're really surprised at what they've accomplished."