The Angels of Ciudad Juarez

Mexico has become a byword for violence and dysfunction ever since its government began a bloody crackdown on the country’s brutal drug cartels several years ago (comparisons to Colombia during the criminal reign of Pablo Escobar abound). This is unfortunate, given that much of the population is still untouched by gang violence, and the country is far more prosperous than it once was, with economic growth last year being among the fastest in the world. Like many other third world countries, I fear its overall reputation will be tarnished by the negative headlines that dominate any mention of it in the media.

At any rate, Mexicans have become understandably fed up with the state of their country. As part of the recent worldwide trend in political demonstrations,  thousands of people took to the streets, protesting against the violence of the drug war, in addition to the widely perceived incompetence of their public officials. Like their neighbors to the north, most the Mexican population believes their country is heading in the wrong direction. Sure enough, they too have a contentious presidential election ahead of them.

But some brave citizens are speaking out in more creative ways, choosing to defy the gangsters on their own turf within the violence capital of Mexico, Ciudad Juarez – by dressing up as angels.

Angels are not a common sight here in Mexico’s most violent border city, where the public cemetery is putrid and overflowing, and where a handful of churches worship the skeletal saint of death, Santa Muerte.

But at crime scenes and busy corners recently, more than a dozen angels have appeared — 10 feet tall, with white robes and wide feathered wings. The fact that these angels are mostly teenagers from a tiny evangelical church on a dirt road makes their presence no less striking: they carry signs to murder scenes that say “murderers repent.”

Many residents of this blighted community have become emboldened in the face of a relentless crime wave that has claimed journalists, police officers, city officials, and innocent bystanders. Some grim findings include a mass grave of women believed to have been migrants heading for the U.S. Rather than flee or remain silent in the face of such brutality, the people of Juarez have remained insolent, no longer hiding their names in public reports, and leading public cries for law and order. Even by such remarkably bold standards, the angels – most of whom are young teens – are incredibly audacious.

They got started last year, after intense conversations at a Christian church on the city’s outskirts, Psalm 100. Carlos Mayorga, 33, a leader of the group, said the church’s young people had become frustrated with the relentless violence and wanted to do something hard to miss. So they persuaded city officials to donate old curtains that became angelic robes. They raised money for makeup and collected feathers for wings that jut above their heads.

Then they wrote up signs that by and large speak directly to criminals and corrupted officials. “We wanted to prick the consciences of the people who have caused this city so much pain,” Mr. Mayorga said.

Early on, the angels focused on busy intersections. They stood on folding metal chairs for extra height, their robes reaching over the chairs and down to the ground. Israel Santillan, 15, one angel, recalled that there were always a lot of people honking in support and asking if they were being paid.

Later, to make sure they reached their target audience, they started going to crime scenes, where their angelic messages were often greeted with odd stares, and occasionally tears.

The last thing most people would have the gumption to do is visit a recent crime scene, or draw attention to themselves by calling out the very perpetrators of said crimes. Yet that is precisely what these kids are doing by their own volition. How many of us would dare speak truth to power in such a daring way? These gangs have allies throughout the city, including among police, and have shown few scruples in targeting children. What these brave kids are doing is putting them in real danger (though thankfully, last I checked, none of them have yet been targeted).

Thankfully, the beauty and audacity of these actions has inspired people elsewhere in to stand-up to the forces that had once gripped them in fear.

Generally, though, the Messenger Angel idea seems to be catching on. The group has been traveling lately to other dangerous cities — Matamoros, Torreón — where they join with other young Christians dressed as angels. The messages there tend to be just as confrontational.

Mayorga said he hopes that somehow, eventually, they will help bring peace. “The idea is to keep going,” he said. “We have to.”

Indeed, the human capacity for endless perseverance is a remarkable thing. With enough resolve, daring, and patience, few determined human beings can ever be stopped in their efforts. Even the most seemingly harmless demonstrations of raw will can speak volumes in the long run, just its very nature of defiance. I hope Mexico will soon be free of this underserved horror.