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

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

Zach Johnston
MATRON OF REFORM: Nelsa Curbelo, a former nun who's making a difference in Ecuador.
Zach Johnston
SCISSORS, NOT GUNS: A reformed gang member cuts a client's hair in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The Ser Paz organization gives microloans to help gang members start legitimate businesses.

In the most dangerous neighborhood of GuayaquilEcuador's largest and most crime-ridden city – a dozen youths are busy working in the Paz Urbana Print Shop.

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.

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."

"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."

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