Ecuador is caught in the cross hairs of Latin America's drug war. Gangs of every size and dimension can be found on the streets of this tiny country.

But now, an ageing peace activist is trying to give the young people in these gangs hope and a way forward.

She has built a haven for the gangs called Barrio de Paz, 'Neighbourhood of Peace', and has become a grandmotherly figure to the gang members, helping to guide them into a life of non-violence.


By John Dickie and Ioan Grillo

Seven-a-side football is a tough workout at the best of times. But the game we play on a sweaty street in Ecuador's biggest city, Guayaquil, is particularly testing.

Our goalkeeper, Pablo, bears six bullet wounds from various shootings - although to be fair, he is in surprisingly good shape and still seems to have all his reactions intact for catching the incoming footballs.

The striker we are trying to stop from breaking through our defence lines is a boss of the Latin Kings, the biggest street gang in Ecuador, which also has thousands of members in Spain, Italy and the US. Recently, some Latin Kings broke into a Spanish prison to try to murder a rival. We think about doing some dirty British sliding tackles to stop the striker, then we decide it would be unwise.

But despite the fact that we are two paunchy British journalists playing some of the hardest gang members in Ecuador, it is a surprisingly good-natured game.

Following house rules, the teams are awarded points for clean play, points when they celebrate goals in creative ways - salsa dances, overhead summersaults - and extra points if women players score a goal. Street football between rival gangs can become quite a carnival.

Curiously, the brains behind this novel version of the beautiful game has never kicked a football around in her life. Nelsa Curbelo is a bespectacled 70-year-old who spent decades as a nun before helping broker peace processes in Latin America’s bloody civil wars.

But the concept of this street football fits in perfectly with the philosophy of all of Curbelo's work - promoting peace and believing in the essential goodness of human beings.

"These people you see are no different from you and I," Curbelo says. "We have just had different opportunities. They need a chance to transform themselves and an environment that will allow them to do it."

'Being peace'

The idea of peace processes for gang members, gangsters and street thugs is an important concept in Latin America today.

Across the continent, from Mexico's border cities to Brazil's favelas, criminal violence is overwhelming communities and leaving never-ending piles of corpses.

Most governments have opted for military approaches, sending soldiers onto the streets to shoot the gangs into submission. In many cases, the troops have also shot dead bystanders and inflamed the violence further.

Curbelo has a very different approach. Her foundation Ser Paz - which literally means 'Being Peace' - tries to give gangsters a chance to lay down their guns and escape the street war.

Furthermore, rather than getting the bosses to leave their gangs, she encourages them to use their organisations and structures in a positive way.

"The [gang] organisations can be used for good. When a member is sick they will often get support from other members," Curbelo says. "But the organisations can also be used for bad and create problems that are very hard to deal with. It is better to work with them than against them."

Ecuador currently has less severe gang-related violence than Colombia or Mexico, but it has similar root problems to these countries - including millions of poor, marginalised young people and weak government institutions.

In Guayaquil, which has a population of 2.3 million, there are an estimated 60,000 gang members, in groups including the Latin Kings, Masters and Iron Nation.

Gang members were involved in many of the city's 600 homicides last year.

'War on the streets' 

Curbelo said that after decades of fighting the repression of military dictators and insurgent guerrilla groups, she saw that there was a new problem right outside her front door.

"There is real war on the streets. And it is between young people, who are fighting and dying," she says.

Curbelo went into the cities' worst slums and talked directly with the toughest crime bosses.

After gaining their trust, she brokered peace processes between gangs and the government. Gang members handed hundreds of weapons in to the army and, in return, the government helped them set up businesses, including a printing shop and a barbers.

Many gang bosses made the deal because they were looking for a way out of their violent lifestyles - lifestyles in which they were constantly watching their backs, fearing that rivals might be trying to kill them.

But they also trusted the elderly former nun because of her particular human qualities.

"She came to visit me while I was in prison. She listens and understands and offers advice. She is a great human being," says Jorge Arosemena, the scarred boss of the Iron Nation gang.

Giving gang bosses a ticket out of jail and money to start a business is controversial. Many politicians say that street thugs need punishment not amnesty.

But Curbelo's programmes have had concrete results - reducing violence in certain neighbourhoods, at least in the short-term.

As we watch rival gangs play football into the night, neighbours tell us that they are normally scared to come out onto these streets, but the crowds and lights at the tournament make them feel secure.

On this evening, at least, the gangsters are only shooting footballs.

Source: Al Jazeera