Guayaquil was one of the most violent cities in Ecuador in the 1990s. Crime was high and gang-violence was rampant – there were more than 200 gangs, 60,000 gang members, and as many as 30 gang murders a month in the infamous neighborhood of Zona Roja alone.
So one woman decided to do something about it. Nelsa Curbelo, a former teacher and nun in her sixties, founded the organization called “Ser Paz” (Being Peace) in 1999. Its goal was to help gang members get off the streets and start their own businesses. “Ser Paz” now provides professional training, education, and a way for former gang members to creatively express themselves. Within 6 months of starting the organization, violence decreased by 60% in Zona Roja, one of the most violent neighborhoods.
Curbelo made it a point to learn about the issues and needs of the community. For a full two years she walked around the neighborhoods and talked to people. She gained the trust and respect of the community and a deeper understanding of the issues. She learned that youths were often attracted to gangs because they wanted to be seen, to be protected, and to feel like part of a group or a family. So instead of break this structure down, she used it as an asset. The organization now uses a similar group mentality that leads to “positive opportunity for social change” rather than one of violence.
Curbelo’s work and organization has transformed the lives of many gang members. “Ser Paz” provides microloans to those who agree to abandon violent activity and work with someone from a rival gang. The strategy has been very successful. Former rival gang members are now running successful business ventures including a print shop, a dance school, a bakery, a beauty parlor, a recording studio, and a pizzeria.
Violence is now rare in Guayaquil neighborhoods. It all started with the bold action and loving support of one woman. The model for “Peace Towns” is now spreading to other cities and transforming the lives of many.
Join My Gang in Ode Magazine
In Ecuador, Gang Members Trade Guns For Scissors and Nail Polish in The Christian Science Monitor