In the juggernaut of Chicago, a clique of young men clad in yellow and black charge the streets in the night, their breaths drawing out clouds in the crisp air, pistols slung to their belt hoops. Not far behind are the police, ready to lock down their selective yearn for law and order and beat down the Latino gangbangers.
3,000 miles south, in Quito, a city nestled in the Andean mountains, a group of men, women and children, also clad in yellow and black, congregate in a circle inside a basketball court, as the equatorial sun beats down on them. Work is off the agenda for today. No social justice programming, no fundraising drives, no rallies in support of the government are planned. It is two of the members’ birthdays, and the crowd celebrates with cake, whooping and hollering, hugging their comrades.
Both groups are part of the Latin Kings, a transnational gang founded in the United States with the philosophy of "overcoming racial prejudice." While they function mainly as street gangs and are criminalized in the United States, Europe and throughout Latin America – in Ecuador, they have been incorporated into President Rafael Correa’s Citizens' Revolution, working alongside the socialist state to organize on social issues. This shift to social work is touted as a model for dismantling the gang's criminal activity where the group is present elsewhere.
In the lead up to the 2017 elections, the Sacred Tribe Atahualpa of Ecuador (STAE), the official name of the Latin King Nation in Ecuador, hopes Lenin Moreno, the candidate of leftist party Alianza Pais – which all the members and Correa belong to – will win so they can work in continued cooperation.
From stigmatized to socialist
The Latin Kings first sprung up in the streets of Chicago in the 1940s, and the group soon spread to New York, then to Latin America and Europe. By 1992, the group had reached Ecuador and formed a chapter in the capital city of Quito.
Over the next 15 years, the Latin Kings and Queens established chapters in the cities of Guayaquil, Santo Domingo de los Colorados, Tungurahua and Esmeraldas, mimicking the hierarchies of its transnational counterparts, an elaborate network involving monarchs, treasurers and soldiers. As gangsters, they enjoyed prestige and prosperity in the slums of the larger cities, Quito and Guayaquil, and became a part of the group’s larger connections to killings in the United States and gang wars elsewhere in South America.
Then, in 2007, Correa was elected to power. As part of the country’s shift to the left, Correa sought to legalize the Kings and Queens under the name Corporacion de Reyes y Reinas Latinas del Ecuador.
"(These men and women) are committed to the defense of sovereignty. There are students, professionals and artists ... We want to work to generate entrepreneurship opportunities for them, so that they can incorporate into society and generate income," Luis Varese, a specialist in Citizen Security Issues at the Ministry of Interior announced in a 2007 ceremony in the parish of Guayllabamba, Pichincha.
The young members from the group had arrived from all over the country for the inauguration and were excited at the prospect of sharing their message with authorities and society: "No to the discrimination, yes to the artistic, educational and labor opportunities."
"Today we are tightening an ethical and political pact with the national government to achieve new objectives of freedom in the struggle against discrimination, building social equality, and gender rights. We assume responsibility as a civil society in order to serve the community and change its stigmatized vision towards us," the Latin Kings and Queens spokesperson Diego Carrillo said that day.
"We are committed to this process and in that sense we emphasize that the Citizens' Revolution has opened the doors to change," he added.
Karina a.k.a. Queen Esmeraldas
Before the STAE Kings and Queens were legalized by Correa in 2007, they were pushed to the fringes of Ecuadorean society. But that has changed.
“Not everybody, but most people no longer see us as outcasts, because now we build and construct, and people can see what we do,” Karina, known as Queen Esmeraldas, told teleSUR at the recreation center in Quito where the group gathered with their families on a sunny Sunday in February.
“People don't think we are delinquents, because that's what people used to think when they heard ‘Latin King’ … but they look at us differently (now),” she said.
The former gangsters and the Citizens' Revolution
The Citizens' Revolution has since lifted more than 1.5 million people out of poverty, doubled the minimum wage, cut unemployment by over 4 percent and expanded social security to hundreds of thousands of people for the first time — and the Kings and Queens have been both major instigators and beneficiaries of this transformation.
Over the years, the group has worked on youth integration projects and initiatives to combat drug trafficking and has raised funds for earthquake victims and other urban issues.
“How is it that the government, instead of stigmatizing and discriminating against us … recognizes us and develops joint projects in the barrios and other territories where we are present?” pressed Carrillo in an interview with teleSUR.
It's this shift in perception, he explained, that makes their partnership with the government so exemplary. And it was not easily accomplished. The transition from gang to social organization was the result of two years of negotiations between gang leaders and authorities, with academics and clerics acting as mediators.
“Effectively, Ecuador has become a reference on the international level. What happened in Ecuador has not happened in any other place where our organization is present, so many people and researchers come here to get information about Ecuador,” Carrillo added.
The Ecuador elections
In the wake of the upcoming election, Ecuador's Latin Kings and Queens hope for more opportunities for their youth members. Grateful for having worked with Correa over the last decade, they have their hopes set on Alianza Pais’ candidate, Lenin Moreno.
“The process of reintegration for youth … has been favorable to us. It is thanks to the inclusion of the youth in programs such as Bachillerato Acelerado (Accelerated Baccalaureate), for instance, where I also took part,” Luis Orozco, a youth member of the group, told teleSUR.
Orozco graduated in December, an accomplishment he said he wouldn't have achieved without the support of Ecuador's Education Ministry.
“Still, I think there's lots of work to do,” he added. “Unfortunately this is a public problem. Most of the youngsters have no jobs – this is a reality – and there are no people to recruit them since they are in the streets. I think the government should create more projects to reintegrate these young people into dignified job positions.”
As the last of the rallies and parades for the presidential elections take place, and as the country weighs in on the achievements of Correa’s Citizens' Revolution of the past 10 years, the Latin Kings and Queens stand as examples of how the nation has transformed, with policies that have been able to integrate formerly marginalized populations into society.
With a rekindled sense of national pride in the South American nation, the group that was formerly vilified now embodies the fullest sense of community and unity.
“We fight against the discrimination, against all forms of oppression, against those powers,” Carrillo said, positioning his hand to mimic a crown, with two fingers and a thumb extended, the group’s symbol throughout the world. “Against the powers that seek to dominate the oppressed.”