With an origin as unconventional as its name, Cooperativa Kbrones is the first cooperative in Argentina and the second in all Latin America to be conceived within a penitentiary system. What started as an aspiration to do something valuable and practical while serving a sentence, turned into a rewarding learning experience and lifelong project. Today, ten years after its creation, its founder continues to provide opportunities for other imprisoned individuals as well as other marginalized members of society.
Since the creation of Cooperativa Kbrones there have been an additional 39 diverse cooperatives created within prisons. Meanwhile, Kbrones itself continues to provide training and tools to those serving time in hopes that they’ll be able to thrive in the long run. Latina Republic got together with Julio Fuque, founder of Cooperative Kbrones, to learn more about his enterprise and how he continues to expand its efforts.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can tell me a little about yourself, the cooperative, and how it all started.
My name is Julio Cesar, I am the founding member of the first cooperative company in the Republic of Argentina to be started within a prison unit (Joaquín Gorina) in the city of La Plata, Argentina. This compound has an open regime where all those who are in the last stage of their sentence arrive.
It was from there that this project was born, together a group of us set out to design a plan to rebuild our lives, once we achieved our freedom, and thus return home to help support our families. When one is involved in crime, one begins to lose values and also family, because when one focuses on the bad, sooner or later you end up behind bars.
However, we realized our mistakes and began to empower ourselves, to finish our studies, and acquire job trades. We began to work and invite different actors, such as prison services and other civilians who came from outside to visit the prison. One of those people is Pedro Lorenzo, he is a man who is dedicated to doing film discussions in prisons.
Film discussion is an activity where films are shown and debates that result in interesting analysis are generated around them. We were all in that group and he had us watch movies. From there we began to discuss our understanding of the film and that helped us a lot to expand our expectations and to put our brain to work. We thank Pedro for everything he does in our country.
Did Pedro come to provide social services?
No, he’s a civilian who works with sports and culture in all prisons. He used to fly airplanes; then he retired, and today he is dedicated to doing different activities, like sports training for marathon races. I participated in several of them together with other inmates. With the group that we formed, we told Pedro about our project and invited him to see our undertaking which we intended to give a business format.
I had saved everything on a computer that a lawyer who was released from prison had left me. It was a cooperative project that he had told me to pack with all the things we had been doing. At that time, I didn’t even know how to turn on the computer.
What were the kind of things that you had been doing thus far?
We enjoyed our own autonomy within prison. We had a very good project that assisted former prisoners’ reentry into society. But it was up to us to continue with this project, to really train and inform ourselves. The help we received from the people outside the jail who came to visit us was a very useful thing.
They gave us courses, and they helped to carry out our venture. Pedro was an important link who introduced us to a group of psychosocial operators. That group joined our efforts and came to work with us thanks to the help of Pedro Lorenzo who invited them to learn about our project, what we had been doing, and our intention to form a cooperative.
We did not suspect that from this group of psychosocial operators, which were five people, Marita Suárez would still be with us today. Marita is an excellent, striving woman, who continues to accompany us in our endeavor. Finding out that she belonged to the cooperative movement, gave us the opportunity to perfect our project.
After that, it gave us the chance to get to know the Federación de Cooperativas de Trabajo (Federation of Labor Cooperatives) of Argentina known by its acronym FECOOTR, which has over 35 years of history in the cooperative movement and in labor cooperative companies in Argentina. They gave us that opportunity to train as a cooperative and receive our provincial registration.
Later, when we regained our freedom, we were able to receive our national registration, and that is why you and I are now talking about the first cooperative in Argentina and the second in Latin America, created inside a prison. From the inside, we became very involved with the project, studying, training, and empowering ourselves with all the tools that this challenge posed.
From there, in a short time, we regained our freedom and left with a project that we committed to make a reality outside of prison.
However, the enterprise continued to operate within the prison; it remains as a training school to benefit future inmates when they are released.
Where did the name Kbrones come from? (Kbrones is a play on words from the Spanish cabrón which literally means goat but also has other connotations)
“Kbrones,” like the goat. Pedro Lorenzo always saw us confronting the prison service, but not fighting, just debating and explaining that we had rights; the only right we lost within prison was the right to roam freely, but besides that we were entitled to all other rights, like any other citizen. One day Pedro came and took us by the hand saying: “You are the cabrones” and we said to each other, there it is, the name of the cooperative: we are going to name it, Kbrones.
The other reason for the name is the symbolism of the goat, an animal that always goes forward with force, if it stumbles, falls, it gets back up and continues to tackle forward until achieving its goal, which is to reach the tops of mountains.
We think similarly, we have to tackle, we are going to stumble, but we will continue to get up and keep climbing until we reach our own mountaintop; our mountaintop is having our own source of work.
How would you describe the mission of the Cooperative?
The mission is to be able to continue setting up other cooperatives throughout the country, and that these models can be replicated in other countries as well.
Regarding Kbrones’s specific objectives, we want to install our clothing brand and sell it in other countries. We want to continue to grow and incorporate many more colleagues in the work that we are carrying out.
The term cooperative has different meanings in different regions of Latin America, how do you define cooperative in the case of Kbrones? Is it a company or something similar?
The term cooperative comes from the word cooperation; it is where a group of people come together under a common need and work in a collective manner as a network. Thanks to this, the surpluses and profits from the capital that is generated from these companies can be distributed to the people of the cooperative. We chose to form a cooperative because of the values that it carries.
When we began to study and train ourselves on the subject and its relationship with democracy; from showing solidarity to others, to developing a cooperative spirit that prompted us to work and help other colleagues who are still deprived of their freedom.
For this reason, when we got out of jail, we began to work in this cooperative, but without neglecting our colleagues who remained inside, because they had the same problem as us years ago. We understand that to combat insecurity we must create security, and this is based on education and work.
Everywhere they portray it the other way around: that security means they leave us locked up behind bars with alarms; it means hiring a private security company, and that you should do the same for your business. And that if you are going shopping, you have to go with two custodians behind you because the poor, the indigenous, the ones who have no education, the ones who do not have a work culture are dangerous.
The cooperative movement provides these people with the opportunity to really insert themselves back in society and allows a resounding change in the lives of people who are deprived of liberty.
For this reason we created a program called ACCEL: Área de Cooperativismo en Contexto de Encierro (Area of Cooperativism in a Context of Confinement).
Our cooperative has been in the country for ten years, but at the same time those ten years gave us the possibility and all the tools to form, within the Federation of Labor Cooperatives, a program that could train men and women deprived of their freedom, or also train those released so they could teach trades to those who are still imprisoned.
Is your program still being implemented inside prisons? And is the cooperative already functioning outside them?
This program works and is very successful, because as of today there are 40 cooperative companies that have come about since Kbrones was created ten years ago, which has turned us into pioneers in Argentina and Latin America. We gave training to the 39 remaining companies and delivered the same tools that we were able to acquire in the course of our learning. With them, we could really see the results of our work, as we sowed in fertile soil, per se.
They have come from other countries such as Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, to study our enterprise, to take our cooperative model into other prisons. All over the world, prisons are overcrowded, and they no longer know what to do with the prison population.
Here in Argentina we suffer from that too, and many more prisons are being created, but all of them are full. We propose that if jails continue to be set up, and they should be created, but these precincts should be model in a way that makes them learning opportunities of how to withdraw from a life a crime.
That a young boy or girl who stole a cell phone be given an opportunity not condemned a priori and taken to jail, without first knowing what the problem is, possibly family dysfunction, no prior education in the family, nor were such opportunities available, perhaps the father sells drugs, or the cousin has dedicated his entire life to crime. In other words, what do you expect from someone who lived surrounded by these problems all their life?
It is for these types of causes that we carry out our project in Argentina. And we are very sure that by implementing this type of educating policy the rate of prison overcrowding that the country suffers will be lowered, and at the same time, it will be possible to combat insecurity through work and education.
Do provide these services to people so that they can do something productive with their free time?
Exactly, a person with an unoccupied mind inside a jail, is most likely going to be thinking about doing harm to others. Now, if instead that person has their day occupied with different activities, when nighttime comes the only thing they are going to want to do is eat, bathe, rest, and enjoy their family; or if they are detained, just rest, so they can get up the next day and continue with their same work routine.
With the aforementioned dynamics, the violence rates inside prisons can be lowered, but it cannot be done alone; it must be complemented by the assistance and commitment of private organizations as well as the government, so as to generate a paradigm shift at a global level.
Throughout these ten years, what support and what obstacles have you encountered at the governmental level?
The first obstacle was that they told us “you will not achieve it,” but we said that we would. Negativity is installed strongly, and it may end up causing harm. However, we believe in what we do, and that it is good to build something different and that gives people hope.
On the other hand, the support of the state was always very strong and present when we presented the program to them. Through this project they gained confidence in us and proved that our activities allowed for the crime rate to be lowered within prisons.
We have our own clothing brand which we manufacture: Kbrones COP. We are a textile industry, we manufacture everything that is safety clothing for workers and also for the police force. We are gradually entering these organizations, which are very exclusive, with good communication and through careful and excellent quality work, we are achieving competitive prices in the market.
How did you manage to break the barriers that you have encountered over the years? How do you manage to maintain a quality product and competitive prices?
There are two relevant factors: quality and responsibility. We have to comply like any company, delivering the products on time, and maintaining the quality of the garments we make to compete adequately in the market, because there are much larger and more well-known companies than ours that have been in the market for several years. We started in 2015, but years before that we worked for third parties.
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After that we decided, as an assembly, to bring about our own clothing brand, and thank God we were successful, and installed it little by little in the market; today we live from that. Our company is self-sustaining and all partners know and understand that we are the generators of our own money.
We have to work every day to make ends meet and be able to take money home. If you don’t come to work, you don’t generate resources. Like any worker, you can gain enough income to live not a luxurious, but a comfortable life, pay your basic bills, taxes, and anything that your children may need to be well.
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Has the current COVID pandemic changed anything in terms of textile production? Has the Cooperative been affected in any way by the pandemic?
Four years ago the government made things quite complicated. Now there is another president, from the Peronist ideology. He has been in power for two years, and he still has two more to go. Currently, our economy has faced challenges due to the pandemic, and we were even thinking we may go bankrupt.
But I talk it over with my colleagues and tell them that we are like the Phoenix that rose from the ashes, because we came from a difficult situation, and, therefore, the country had to be stabilized, especially with regard to the industry.
There was no money in Argentina and the pandemic wound up complicating things for many people in the country. However, we considered the context and reinvented ourselves, creating products that were highly demanded by society, such as face masks for different hospitals, clinics, and unions. This generated a high demand for us. We had never manufactured health kits, but we thought, we have been manufacturing clothes, why not take advantage of this opportunity to create useful things for this health crisis.
After a phone call we were given the chance to compete for the manufacturing of 100,000 face masks, so we submitted a sample with a colleague named Pablo, and our face mask won. For this reason, we were appointed the sale of those 100,000 face masks, and another 100,000 more that they ordered from us almost immediately.
After that, another 400,000 face masks were added. Now we are manufacturing health kits, for the province of Buenos Aires, for the Buenos Aires suburbs, and for the government of Buenos Aires.
We are creating sanitary kits with caps, boot covers, and camisoles, reaching up to 200 thousand kits. In other words, we have a massive number of orders, and not only is Kbrones working on them as a company, but we are providing other cooperatives that were having trouble making progress or didn’t know how to operate, precisely because of the COVID-19 problem, with the opportunity to network and work together so they are able to get ahead.
Nobody expected this disaster of a pandemic, which did terrible damage to the whole world, but I believe that it came about to give an important message to all of us, it is teaching us how to survive and the importance of sharing our opportunities with others. And that no matter how much money you have, if you become seriously infected with COVID-19, you will end up deceased whether you are rich or poor.
How have you managed to keep up with such high demand? When the Cooperative started it was a small group, how much has it grown since? How do you go about hiring more people?
What we aim to do is give opportunities to people who were being exploited in clandestine workshops. Kbrones is not only dedicated to working with individuals who were deprived of their freedom, but also provides opportunities to people from the neighborhood where the factory itself is located, to women and men who have gone through our program and after two years have been released from prison and regain freedom.
Then, the news spreads by word of mouth in different places, and since there is a lot of demand for work nowadays, people come and knock on your door. We interview them, and if we find someone that fits with what we are looking for, we give them the opportunity to work with us.
Are there any specific requirements that have to be met in order to work with Kbrones?
The type of profile we look for is of individuals who have the will and desire to work, and that won’t have us waste our time, because there are a lot of people who need these jobs and are deprived of their freedom. After they get out of prison, there are very few people who lend them a hand to give them a chance.
We tell them, look, there are hundreds more asking us for a job, that is why we want you to take advantage of this opportunity that we are giving you, and then we tell them the whole story; how the cooperative was created within a prison, and we had to cross many barriers to be able to achieve our goal and have a company that today today can house all of us.
Currently, the cooperative provides 23 people with an opportunity to work, but I am not just talking about Kbrones, but also the other cooperatives, which are not all textile industries; there are construction, graphics, leather goods, and recycling cooperatives, and all of them are self-sustainable.
Has the Cooperative, or its members, ever suffered any kind of discrimination because of its prison context?
Yes, there are some security companies for example, that precisely because of the origin of the cooperative, fear they will make the front page of newspapers and television for giving jobs to ex-convicts, so they refrain from moving forward with us. But we experienced the most discrimination when our cooperativism program began to function within the context of confinement.
Take for example the case we took on of a young man who was accused of homicide. What the cooperative did was give him the chance to insert himself into society so that he could work, finish his studies, and be part of society. The cooperative gave him an opportunity, as it would continue to do for many others.
However, we feel very discriminated against by the Argentinian media. They fiercely attacked us, accusing us of being a cooperative of thieves, criminals, and broadcasting it all over the media, and well, that impacted us negatively a lot. In some places it was taken in a good way, but in others it definitely hurt us.
However, we believe in what we do and we know that we are doing good. We didn’t give the young man a gun, or a barrel of gasoline, or anything he could use to do anyone harm. We provide him with the tools necessary to prevent him from committing any more crimes, and we are very satisfied with that. This young man did not reoffend; he became a lawyer, and today he is working in the city of La Plata in a law office, which makes us very proud.
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Do you have any interesting anecdotes that provide insight about the Cooperative?
Here in Argentina is COOPERAR, which is the Confederation of Cooperative Federations of the Republic of Argentina. We are talking about a first-degree Cooperative, the Federation is second-degree and the Confederation is third-degree. The current president of COOPERAR is also the head of the global cooperative alliance.
His name is Ariel Guarco, he took over the position two years ago, and he was going on a trip to Rome and he asked all of us from Kbrones to make a thermos holder to give to Pope Francis directly. So we accepted the challenge and made a leather thermos holder that can carry the thermos and the mate; here we drink a lot of yerba mate. Thus, our thermos holder became a gift for Pope Francis. We also traveled to Europe, to the University of Mondragón in Spain, where one can study everything there is to know about cooperativism.
Did you go there to study?
What we did was take all the cooperative members so they could improve on themselves and learn more from one another, because they set up many functional cooperatives that belong to the Basque province in Mondragón. All these cooperatives are multinationals, so much so that they even have headquarters in China.
We went there to bring back that experience and to be able to further empower cooperatives within Argentina. At the University, we were tasked with setting up a project where we would talk about our work experience in the context of confinement. It was a very enriching experience.
When was this?
In 2014. I was chosen to travel there, although I was afraid that we might get into a plane accident on the 15 hour long trajectory there, so I asked my colleagues to take care of my family, God forbid some misfortune occurred and even just during the time I would be gone. Anyways, once we arrived in Madrid we had to go to Bilbao, and during that time we had an hour delay on the plane, we wouldn’t take off because it was damaged.
After much hesitation, we ended up getting on the plane, after it was repaired, and I broke down inside the flight, I was so nervous I was just saying a lot of thoughts out loud. But it is an anecdote after all, experiences that marked me forever, and that greatly empowered us to improve our cooperative and continue helping our colleagues here in Argentina.
What do you consider to be a fundamental concept to successfully execute the mission of the cooperative?
To empower the cooperative and help it succeed as a company by providing innovations, machinery, the necessary things to be able to continue advancing and exceed our productions. Our idea this year is to try to make other articles that are of excellent quality, that can compete in the market, and above all that are fashionable, such as men’s and women’s jeans, which is our current project. God willing we will be able to accomplish this goal.
Why is the cooperative currently manufacturing health kits directly with government health entities?
The work with the government is strictly with the Ministry of Health and they are the ones who distribute the kits we manufacture to the hospitals. There is a supplier’s page and there we have to present all the documents of the cooperative and its associates. Then you participate like any other company in tenders that the government, which is the great supply consumer, has.
Could you share with me a positive and a negative outcome of the cooperative?
The achievement, that we reached our ten year anniversary in December 2020, with all the obstacles and problems that we managed along the journey, because a large part of the system did not allow for these type of companies to remain standing, but our effort and desire to help our fellow man in need gives us the strength to move forward. To enter a prison, see a young man and tell him that he is going down the wrong path, and tell them our experience and that through our venture we were able to manage to have our own company, and that they too can do it, this discourse of ours provides them with great motivation. The negative aspect has been that during the pandemic we weren’t able to visit prisons and continue helping our colleagues.
Tell me an unexpected result of this project.
An unexpected result was the creation of a mutual fund for the families of the people who are detained, and for the prisoners themselves as well. This fund provides many benefits to the families of those detained. This fund is an organization, like a civil association, that provides all kinds of social benefits, such as basic medicine, access to sports, and also makes it possible to market products, hold business meetings, hold negotiations, and other things.
To access these benefits, monthly fees are paid to the fund, which manages the income and provides benefits to the family members of the prisoners. In addition to the aforementioned services we also provide assistance, financially and otherwise, for burial services in order to lighten the burden of those that can’t afford it.
Does an entity or scholarship currently sponsors the Cooperative? What can those who want to help or know more about the Cooperative do?
They can help with scholarships, introducing a new client, collaborate with financial donations to continue growing the program. Collaborative alliances or mutual agreements can be made between countries, or between organizations, that is to say, many things can be done, there just has to be the desire to do them and move them forward.
The doors of our organization are always open so that we can be of help to the United States, which has a high demand in prison matters. In fact, as we know, the United States is one of the countries with one of the highest numbers of incarcerated people.
Of course, we would have to learn the language and invite Latina Republic over after the pandemic ends, that way you will be able to get to know our cooperative, the Federation, the fund and take a tour of all our organizations.
Thank you for your time Julio and congratulations on your inspiring story of perseverance!
Julio Fuque was able to flip his story around and change his destiny. Through hard work and perseverance he got a second chance after regaining his freedom. Now he wants to continue to pay it forward. Through his solidarity and proactive efforts with the Cooperative, he hopes to provide others with a similar opportunity. Kbrones is well on its way to fulfill their mission of economically, socially, and culturally transforming the social reality of Argentina and hope to expand that further into other regions of the world.
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My name is Alejandra Perez, and I am currently completing the last year of my Masters of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Florida International University. Born in Colombia but raised in the United States, I have always sought out ways to connect with my heritage and broaden my understanding of Latin American. Having lived most of my life in Miami, FL has exposed me to a variety of Latin American experiences and allowed me to gain further appreciation for its diverse cultures overall. This interest is what led me to pursue an academic career focused on Spanish and Latin American studies. I have always been intrigued more so by the humanities and look forward to continue using the power of storytelling to promote Latin American culture in a way that allows others to appreciate the richness of the region. As a Latin American Correspondent, I hope to focus on civic engagement geared towards advocating for the Latin American community within and outside the United States.