police, Ecuador
Police on duty in Quito, Ecuador, in 2010. Photo credit: Simon Schultz / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Starting in 2007, Ecuador reformed its police and decriminalized gang membership. A study in 2017 showed the murder rate dropped by over 400 percent.

Gang violence is one of the main drivers of the exodus from Central America. In response to the exodus, President Donald Trump wants to cut US aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — a move that critics say will only exacerbate the situation.

Trump has also talked about using tough police tactics and mass deportation to eliminate the Latin street gang MS-13 — a group that actually originated in Los Angeles.

Sociologist David Brotherton has been studying gangs since the early 1990s. His research on gang violence in New York informed a major policy shift in Ecuador, starting in 2007, wherein gangs were legalized and the police were reformed.

Ten years later he studied the impact in Ecuador and found a reduction in the murder rate from 22 murders per 100,000 population to 5 per 100,000.

Brotherton describes the changes as members of the Latin Kings, Latin Queens, and other gangs transformed into social organizations, producing successful hip hop concerts, among other activities.

Discussing the counterproductive impact of many authoritarian approaches to gangs, Brotherton introduces us to the term “deviance amplification,” which refers to the unintended consequences of hard-line approaches. He also offers insightful comments on the prospects for violence reduction in Chicago under Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the murder rate in Ecuador declined by 400 percent. It should have said ‘by a factor of four.’ We regret the misstatement. 

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Full Text Transcript:

Peter B. Collins: Welcome to another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast in San Francisco. I’m Peter B. Collins. Today. I’m joined by Dr. David Brothertonn and expert on street gangs. He’s a sociologist who’s been studying gangs since the early 1990s. He picked up his PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara, did some time at UC Berkeley studying street gang subcultures, and since ’94 he has been at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice part of the city, University of New York. Dr. Brothertonn, thanks for joining me today.

David Brotherton: Oh, thanks for inviting me.

Peter B. Collins: Well, I was really struck by a recent interview published at vox where you described the dramatic changes in the nation of Ecuador, after street gangs were essentially decriminalized and converted into community or social organizations. This appears to be a striking model to deal not only with domestic gang activity in the United States, but the gangs that are producing massive violence and migration in the so called northern triangle of Central America.

David Brotherton: Yeah, that’s right. The Ecuador government legalized gangs round about 2007/2008 as part of the presidents citizens revolution it was called, and a whole new plan of public security and national security, which he put forward that had to be based on the achievement of social security of all citizens of Ecuador. The issue of street gangs, there were large street gangs, a number of which had come originally from the United States, that their idea was to socially include them rather than socially exclude them, which is what was happening in the United States, and treat them as full citizens. That approach was going to be their approach towards public security, or in sociality what we call social control.

Peter B. Collins: What were the general conditions in Ecuador at the time Rafael Correa became president and embraced this concept?

David Brotherton: Well, it was a developing country, so significant numbers of people were below the poverty line right about 35%. There was a large number of underemployment, so maybe something like also about 25-30% of the people were underemployed. The GDP was about 10,000 per year or something per person, per capita, and the homicide rate was around 22 per 100,000, which was about four times the rate of, although United States was quite high and the 90s, but it’s about four times the rate of the United States.

  It’s a country that’s bordered by Columbia and Peru. Colombia as you know is one of the major drug producing nations in the United States, and had an extremely high homicide rate of almost a 100 per 100,000, and Peru was also a high drug producing nation, so it was bordered by countries that were quite destabilizing. For him to come in and take charge, he faced quite a few issues. It was also Ecuador had gone through more governments than almost any other government in South America during the 20th Century. Again, to create a situation of public security and stability was a tall order at that time.

Peter B. Collins: How much of a hard sell was it for you and others to persuade the government of Ecuador to dramatically change its policies and stop criminalizing gang membership and participation, instead putting them on a very different path.

David Brotherton: Well, actually it wasn’t much of a hard sell strangely, because he was coming in as the sort of great reformer and the great modernizer. He had, you know, he’s still alive obviously, he achieved his PhD in Economics in a US institution, he got it from University of Illinois, in Havana Illinois. His father had actually done prison time for some kind of drug dealing thing that he’d got into. He did hard time in the United States, I forget how many years, but on his release, he, I think soon after, whatever reason, committed suicide.

  Correa was thinking about the war on drugs and he saw the war on drugs that was being perpetrated by the United States especially under Reagan, kind of a way of spreading the US influence around the world in a kind of negative way, was having quite a negative impact actually, both domestically and internationally, and he wanted a policy that would go against that kind of US export of repression, especially gang repression that was actually leading to the prison industrial complex, and he saw that as a destabilizing set of policies. He wanted to do something completely the opposite.

  When his advisors and people who are influential in his political party, what happened is they had come from places like Spain and Italy that had also toyed with legalizing gangs in Barcelona and in general Italy and achieved a great deal of success. It seemed like the crime rate among the gangs and the conflict rate among gangs decreased, and they said, why don’t you try this idea, and he went for it. I don’t think they ever realized how long it was going to last of it was going to be more than a couple of years and just try out and see what worked.

  It went quite smoothly actually in the beginning phases, and also reaching out to these groups, saying like, come on, work with us, work with the government, gain legitimacy, gain validity. I’m not sure they thought the groups were going to respond in that way, but they did, and so it worked out, it worked out incredibly favorably, probably against the most people’s intuition,

Peter B. Collins: Now Dr. Brothertonn, I’m just trying to imagine this against the backdrop of how things work in the United States. If we attempted this kind of policy here, first the law enforcement and the criminal justice powers would push back and say, Oh no, this is a threat to our safety, and we can’t take the risk. On the other side, members of gangs would have a hard time trusting the various agencies that have been arrayed against them, and pitted against them for years. And so how did confidence building developed, where gang members would put down their guns and accept the assurances of the government that they could switch to becoming a community based social organizations without reprisal?

David Brotherton: Well, what had happened kind of almost the same time, was that they carried out a national police reform. What they did is they purged a lot of the police offices that they saw as being corrupt, and basically on the tape or violent had violent histories, and they got rid of them. It was quite a large percentage of police officers left the Ecuadorian police force. They were trained in that kind of para militarized way, actually so dissimilar from the United States, and to replace them, they set out this whole new kind of branch of the police force which was very significant, called the community police, [foreign language 00:09:05].

  They trained them in a completely different approach to social problems. They trained them in kind of none violent responses, to problems on the street or problems in the community. They lengthened their training, I think they doubled actually police training. And then overtime they significantly increased police wages, they went up like 50/60% to try to dissuade them from taking bribes for stalling necessity of taking bribes.

  That was happening, and then what they did was that they kind of integrated a number of different ministries and the whole project of the gang legalization thing. Now they worked with three major gangs. They first worked with this very large gang that came from Chicago called the Latin Kings, the Latin Kings and Queens. And then went from Chicago to New York City and then to Europe. That was a huge group. Then he worked with another group called The Ñeta, which is a group originally came out of Puerto Rico, the prison system, and then came to the US mainland, which was large. Both of these groups, they’re large groups, you’re talking about 3000-4000 members in each group.

  Then they worked with an indigenous group called the masters of the street, that also had about 4,000-5,000 members, so these are not small street corner groups, these are quite large memberships. It went first with the Kings and they talked to their leadership, and then basically the ministries that were responsible for it were the Ministry of Economic and Social Mobility, and then the ministry of the interior and then the Ministry of Justice, and then the Ministry of Culture. All of these ministries were involved, not just what would be here, probably if we did it ever, would be the Department of Justice. No, it was all these other ministries you see.

  They had what we call a holistic approach to the whole legalization process. The whole idea was to convince gang members, well, what are your issues? What are your problems? It wasn’t just about sort of the fighting other gangs, it was about employment, it was about schooling, it was about health, access to health insurance and health care, it was about family, family security and whatever affects the family, community life, all of these different things. They said, we’re all going to be on this together, so it’s not just about dealing with the cops and it’s not just about dealing with the criminal justice system, it’s about dealing with all these problems.

  Well, for a lot of these gang members, this was, call it manna from heaven, this is what they wanted to hear, but they weren’t going to be just treated as crime problems, they were going to be treated as bonafide members of the community, and we have all these issues, and because we have all these issues actually is one of the reasons were gang members in the first place. And so it made total sense to them in a way.

  And then, for the government to say, listen, we don’t just want to work with you, right, to diminish violence or whatever, but we actually want you, we want you as full fledged members of the community, as full fledged citizens. If you agree to this, then there are all these other things that you’ll have access to, for example government grants, government employment, education in universities and so on and so forth. And so over time, what they promised, they gave and the gang members were very impressed by that. They formed this firm relationship, it was a quid pro quo, each was believing in the other, and each help the other to learn about each other actually. The whole thing took off and then it spread.

Peter B. Collins: Dr. Brothertonn, were there gun buy backs or amnesty for previously convicted gang members included in this process?

David Brotherton: No, not at all. No, it was not that at all. What happened was that the, say the Kings for example, they established a parallel organization, they called it an association, it was called the Latin King and Queen Association, and then they would have a separate structure, parallel structure and that would be the entity that would negotiate with the government on all kinds of different plans that they had, and the others would do same, so they had these kind of parallel associations. They still had their association on the street, and they had their street credibility or whatever, but they had this other association that worked in parallel with the government.

  That’s how they began to liaise and plan things, plan things together. The more they planned things together and they saw, you know, they achieved all kinds of things like this credible, like huge hip hop festivals, for example, which people came forward like [inaudible] some of the largest festivals of that nature ever to be held in Ecuador. And they did it, and they did it with government money and they were very, very successful. And so each time they kind of reached a level of achievement, it deepened the relationship and deepened their self confidence about what they could achieve.

  The violence went down because what previously may have been groups that they were in conflict with, they’re now working side by side on similar projects. And so say you dislike the other, there’s a tit for tat, the [inaudible] in gang wars often is kind of conflict spirals we call them, and the other group, let’s say the Bloods and Crips or whatever it is, they become dehumanized by your group. If you see their colors, you’re just going to hit at them because of all the things they’ve done to you. Well now you’re working with people that you know, you know them on a first name basis, you have their phone numbers, you talk to one another, you can’t dehumanize them. That was one of the major reasons why the violence rate fell precipitously, especially in the poorest of poor neighborhoods.

Peter B. Collins: The drop in violence, you told us that the rate before the program began was 22 per 100,000, and it was reduced to five per 100,000 in 2017, that’s a huge drop by like 400 plus percent in a 10 year period.

David Brotherton: Yeah. It fell basically if you look at the rates of homicide in South America for example, the bottom two or three countries is always going to be Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, and now it’s Ecuador, they’re all in the bottom four or five, and there’re basically say four to five, which is very comparable to the United States. Yeah, it was extraordinary. And it went over time, so it’s not like if you, normally if you do a study, then may be two or three years, you see a dip, and you go okay, then suddenly it shoots up again, it gets spiked then it gets dipped, this went down continuously for 10 years. The most remarkable thing is nobody noticed it outside of Ecuador. Nobody said, ‘Wow, what they’re doing right over there?” Nobody cared.

  And then this institute in Rio de Janeiro, called the Igarape Institute, which is one of the world’s leading institutes of homicide named Ecuador as having the most sustainable drop in homicide in the world, about 2017. I was in Ecuador at the time and I was working with the Ministry of the Interior, and I said, “Look, you know, this is extraordinary, who knows about this?”

  And they basically said, “Nobody.”

  I said, “Nobody is relating this to the gang legalization process, you’re the only country in the world that does this.”

  And they said, “Nope, nobody’s written about it either.”

  I got money from the Inter-American Development Bank at that time and they said, go off and tell us about it, this is an extraordinary achievement, so that’s what I did.

Peter B. Collins: Dr. Brothertonn as we look at this today, the Latin Kings, have they morphed into something equivalent of the Kiwanis Club or Knights of Columbus or the veterans of Foreign Wars? You mentioned the hip hop concert, but on a day to day basis, what is their role in the community and what services or functions do they provide?

David Brotherton: Well, they’re more like a [inaudible] social movement … Kind of like these other groups you mentioned, voluntary groups. They’re a community group but they’re nationwide. They basically work with some of the most marginalized youth in Ecuador in society, because maybe push that [inaudible] extreme level of poverty and so on and so forth. They give them a sense of identity, [inaudible] Latin Kings, so it’s obviously about pride and sort of dignity and self respect. And they pick up these kids, young people, 16/17 years of age or older, they kind of appeal to them, they appeal to them on a number of different levels.

  They join and there’s certain rules and regulations that abide by, and a lot of it is giving back to the community, a lot of it is about discipline and the discipline of yourself and keeping yourself in good straits physically and mentally. These are kids who would not necessarily finish school or certainly wouldn’t have any kind of aspirations of going to college or anything like that, would be lucky if they could get a skilled job. Well, strangely enough, by joining this group, and having these access to these kinds of government programs, but also having access now to universities.

  We work with one large university in Quito, for example, called the Catholic University, and they’ve been working with these guys now for at least eight/nine years. Currently there’s about 200 members of the Latin Kings and Queens involved in the university in academic and professional programs, learning the culinary arts, graphic design. One lad just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology of all things. These things were unheard of in the kind of prototypical gang membership career and now it’s kind of the new tradition, the new norm. Again, it turns the whole usual stereotype on its head and it shows that these groups who, you know, again is seen as kind of the leaders of mayhem and violence and drug dealing or whatever, their strengths of collective organization, of kind of loyalty for one another and all that sort of thing can be turned in a positive direction, and kind of this is proof in the pudding.

  The other thing which is termly important to understand as well, as I said, Ecuador is bordered by countries, these are major cartels in these other countries, right. These cartels would love to get a foothold in Ecuador because then they have access to the Pacific Ocean, and then you can get your drugs straight up the coast to Panama and then into the United States. Well, the cartels don’t run on their own, they run on recruiting precisely from these kinds of youth, poor youth without much of a future, come and join us, you can make $1,000 a day. You face seduction from the cartels. But what happened is that these groups, by keeping these kids involved, and out of kind of the drug trade as it were, has denied the cartels actually the kind of recruitment that would allow them to be as established in Ecuador as they are in Columbia and Peru.

  That was precisely what the former government of Peru, the Correa government was also understanding. The biggest threat, one of the biggest threats to its revolution if you’d like, would have been the cartels, because if the cartels weren’t there, games over, because the bribery just buys off any kind of democratic process. And so, it had so many benefits, apart from declining violence and so on and so forth, helping progressive measures to achieve social control, it also stopped the cartels spreading their political economy elsewhere and their brand of mayhem. It had many, many different kind of consequences, but I don’t think they saw immediately, but as the process wore on, they could see the benefits on so many different levels.

Peter B. Collins: Dr. Brothertonn, as you described the transformation of the Latin Kings and the other gangs in Ecuador, I’m reminded of an event I attended recently at Sonoma State University. They did a screening of the 1979 film set in Los Angeles, called Boulevard Nights, and it depicted the low riders and the gangs that were active in LA at the time. It was fascinating because all of the people who attended were, well, some of them are grandparents and they talked about the transformation that happened here where in the 70s and 80s, low riders were considered thugs and gangsters who had to be tracked and prosecuted and locked up. And that over time, low riders became the whole, activity became much more of a family practice as the low riders got married and had kids. Over time, these people are now pillars of the community and they have fond memories of their early days. The movie is in many ways iconic and unleashed a lot of powerful memories, but it does show that people do change and that criminalizing certain behaviors usually produces an effect that is counterintuitive to the desired goal.

David Brotherton: Yeah exactly. In criminology, we call that deviance amplification, literally the very behavior that you want to stamp out, say drug use, when you do it in this repressive way, they don’t really understand if public health [inaudible] you simple reproduce the behavior. And the same you get with gangs, you use gang repression, but you don’t go to the root of why they get gangs or kind of a barometer of the crime rate of our society, [inaudible] in the mind, and when you have gangs, it’s telling you about certain things going bubbling underneath society, levels of marginalization that we should be attending to.

  When you just sort of take away that, the Epiphenomena, the gang itself, and you leave the roots as they are with unemployment, low levels of opportunity, what we call opportunity structures, those levels of social mobility or that kind of thing, then it just simply goes on and it just goes on in different forms. And this has been unfortunately the US Modus Operandi, viz a viz criminal justice, for [inaudible] certainly since more or less the 1970s. Again, the proof is in the pudding there, isn’t it? I mean we do have 25% of the world’s inmates, about 2.4 million people. Gang membership across the countries is probably not much different than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

  We’re now deporting hundreds of thousands of people a year, and we’re exporting our policies of zero tolerance, and broken windows theory all over the world, especially to the poorest countries in the world. We export our so called deviance to the rest of the world, like especially to Central America, exporting people to countries that have a difficult enough time simply incorporating their own population without having to deal with another 25,000/30,000 people. Some of them have criminal records.

  What we’ve done is, we throw fuel on the fire at each stage of the process, but the problem is, that in itself is bad enough, but we have all of these entities, kind of we have all these agencies that kind of build themselves or base themselves on these problems, so we have all kinds of like gang task forces, gang investigators, we know the whole prison industrial industry is like mammoth in terms of it’s privatization, and prisons that have certain … You have people really invested in the problem, in maintaining the problem. When you want to move away from that, you have people actually fighting against certain policies, not because the policies you’re advocating are irrational, but because they’re threatened if you solve the problem. This is a huge problem in the United States, [inaudible] self is a huge problem.

Peter B. Collins: I’d like your comment on President Trump singling out of MS-13, primarily to scare the shit out of his political base, and he fails to note that MS-13 originated in Los Angeles, and through deportations, we spread this virus to the very countries that are producing the migration that Trump seeks to order a halt to and build a meaningless wall on the southern border to try to slow the traffic. But fundamentally, I believe he is approaching this 100% backwards, and your experience in Ecuador I think speaks volumes to that.

David Brotherton: Certainly. It’s not about any kind of rational policy making, right. His whole thing is to develop more panic, to spread fear and loathing among the population in order to maintain his hold on political power. The least thing he wants is a rational policy to solve people’s problems, what he does and through him and through his information agencies such as Fox News and others and the whole Republican Party now really, is to use these young people would be they’re in gangs or not in gangs as kind of pawns in this larger political play. It’s cynical, it’s calculated and it produces enormous levels of social harm.

  Again, anybody that wants to bring us back to kind of a rational kind of approach to issues of say, immigration, immigration control and what our relationship should be with Central America and with Mexico, which should all be based on kind of rational kind of discussions about how we can help each other, work with one another and all that sort of thing, that’s the furthest thing from his mind. His role is to demonize people, mainly people of color, mainly working class and poor people of color, in order to weigh … They always talk about kind of firming up his base and playing to his base.

  But that in itself, what base is it? Who are we talking about the base? Again, really we’re talking about a lot of people here are suffering from high levels of anxiety, people living in a very precarious economy, where they feel threatened, and as we know society, when you feel threatened by one entity, it’s really easy to blame scapegoat and blame another entity and that makes you feel better. That’s kind of where we are at the moment. We’re in this terrible kind of … We’re going down continuously in our levels of civilization, the way we treat one another and it’s becoming the norm and it’s very, very dangerous.

Peter B. Collins: Finally Dr. Brothertonn, as we’re speaking, there’s a new mayor, just been elected in Chicago, which has the highest level of street violence and the highest murder rate in the country today. It’s fascinating because most people are focused on the identity politics that she, Lori Lightfoot is an African-American and a lesbian, but she is a former federal prosecutor and she did the investigation of the murder of Laquan Mcdonald. And so I’m optimistic that she is going to impose much needed police reform, that she has an understanding that the criminalization has not worked to reduce gang participation or generalized drug related violence in Chicago, and also, she is not connected to the Daley machine, and that in many respects propelled or perpetuated the kind of structural problems that have allowed crime to fester there. I’m curious if you have any observations about Chicago, or any of the optimism that I just shared.

David Brotherton: Well, sure. One of the first things you have to remember is the Daley machine, Daley himself came from the Hamburg street gang of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a white gang in Chicago, and produced all kinds of aldermen in Chicago. But the white gang, or most of the white gangs in Chicago kind of died out because the whites, white ethnics, they had pathways of social mobility. They became cops, they became members of the fire brigade or they became politicos, there was a movement out. The gangs from the black community or from the Latino community, they were cut off from any kind of real social mobility. We know what the end result has been.

  Chicago is probably the most segregated city in the United States, with [inaudible] incredible levels of this investment, the south side of Chicago, large African-American community and so on and so forth. Again, back to what I’m saying, where you have, which you’ve had gang wars in Chicago for quite a long time, but these are mainly kind of wars, there are some white gangs like the Royals, but most of the gangs are gangs of color. Were living on top of like incredible levels of marginality and kind of futurelessness really. Those are the issues, right. If Lori Lightfoot can get to a position where we can talk about where does this gang conflict come from, how have they been treated or mistreated? Why have the police behaved in such a brutal manner for such an extraordinary long time? Why all the promises of reforms? Why has it been so difficult to get any kind of accountability? What is this police machine, who is it responsible to and so on and so forth.

  If they shine light on that and get us to a place of some kind of rational discussion about these things rather than hyperventilating over the threats of gangs, then we’ll probably go forward. I think that again, gang truces, we’ve had so many gang truces in the past and they’ve done so much good, but often times the process has been cut off because you get the guys to get together and get the guys to kind of put down their weapons or call a halt to their incivilities and their kind of conflict spirals, but you’ve got to come in with these other things, other programs, other investments to show that society believes in them and believes what they’re doing for the long term.

  Often times what happens is we don’t make good on these opportunities. In fact, after a couple of years, we say yeah, we tried, it didn’t work, let’s go back to the things we know, kind of a default mode of more repression and more reprisals and so on and so forth. She can break that kind of predictability of the past and come up with something new and inventive. Chicago is incredibly rich society, we know they’re a rich city, there’s incredible wealth in that city, but the wealth is not distributed in any kind of rational fashion, so we’ve got to have those conversations.

  I think what happens is, what is happening now is that a lot of people, you know, it’s fantastic that Lori Lightfoot got elected and whether you’re black or gay or whatever, but she’s obviously a reformer of such, and you’ll be seeing this all over the place with more young … Especially women coming forward as reformers of society that people sort of given up on. But we must come back with a goods and the goods is going to be the economic goods. The people who have the real power, the economic and the wealth, are they going to give up their power? That’s the question. Let’s see.

  We’re in a movement of tremendous transition and change, and obviously we’re very … It’s [inaudible] if we continue with these people in the White House, which are basically the biggest gang in America is in the White House at the moment, and what alternatives we can come up with in very dire times.

Peter B. Collins: Dr. Brothertonn, a real pleasure to talk with you, thanks for sharing the experience in Ecuador, and thank you for your critical comments and also for expanding my vocabulary to include the term deviance amplification.

David Brotherton: Thanks ever so much Peter.

Peter B. Collins: Thanks for listening to this radio, WhoWhatWhy podcast featuring Dr. David Brothertonn. Send your comments to If you’ve got spare change, can you put some in the jar at I’d appreciate it.

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