In 2007, the crime-riddled nation of Ecuador did something surprising: It legalized the gangs that had been the source of much of the violence. Then something even more surprising happened over the next decade: Murder rates plummeted.
Ecuador’s approach to violence reduction is about as far away as you can get from America’s, which tends to criminalize gangs. To be clear, just being a member of a gang is not illegal. But because many gang members are known to engage in illegal activity, US law enforcement targets people it suspects of being members. It uses large gang databases (especially common in cities like New York and Chicago) to round up young people, often from poor communities of color. They may be deported or imprisoned for years. When we talk about criminalizing gangs, we’re talking about this punitive approach.
In Ecuador, the unprecedented decision to legalize gangs across the country was basically a decision to adopt the opposite attitude. The country allowed the gangs to remake themselves as cultural associations that could register with the government, which in turn allowed them to qualify for grants and benefit from social programming, just like everybody else.
This approach appealed to David Brotherton, a sociologist at the City University of New York who’s been arguing since the 1990s that US policy wrongly pathologizes gang members. So in 2017, a decade after Ecuador legalized gangs, he headed over there to conduct ethnographic research on major groups like the Latin Kings and Queens.
It turned out they’d undergone a stunning transformation. The members were still very active in their gangs, but these were functioning more like social movements or cultural groups. Previously violent Latin Kings were working in everything from catering to crime analysis. And they were collaborating with other gangs they’d warred with in the past.
Brotherton is preparing to head back to Ecuador for the next phase of his multi-year research, which will focus on a gang called Masters of the Street. He just won a Guggenheim Foundation grant in support of that work, which is how I learned about it. What he’s discovered has the potential to upend the mainstream US approach to deviance.
I spoke to Brotherton about what he saw on the ground in Ecuador and whether he thinks that model can work in other Latin American countries and even in the US. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.