- They wear white robes and feathered wings
- "We are doing this because we want Juarez to change," says one angel
- Juarez has had more than 9,000 murders in the last three-and-a-half years
The transformation begins by pulling their hair back, slowly and at times painfully. The process requires a good amount of gel. Putting white make up on their faces like a mime is the second step. Then come the angelic, white robes; and for the final touch, wide, feathered wings.
They call themselves "messenger angels." The young evangelical Christians take a message of peace to intersections and public places in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent city across the border from El Paso, Texas.
The city with a population of 1.3 million in the state of Chihuahua has had more than 9,000 murders in the last three-and-a-half years.
"We get people's attention because instead of doing bad things, like other young people, we are doing this because we want Juarez to change," says Cynthia Gutierrez, one of the messenger angels.
The youth all attend the Psalm 100 Church in Juarez's Tierra Nueva (New Land) neighborhood, an economically challenged area with more than its share of violence and crime. Carlos Mayorga, a preacher and youth minister at the church, says the idea came about during a meeting last year in September.
"The kids chose 25 strategic locations throughout the city that they wanted to target," Mayorga says. "We do not share information about our church because we want the message of peace to be universal."
The messenger angels only meet on weekends, when they're off from school. The messages they have painted on the signs they carry are very telling: "corrupt police officer: seek God," "Authorities: nothing can be done without Christ," are among the messages that they show to the public.
On a recent weekend, a messenger angel stood near a busy intersection by an underpass in Ciudad Juarez with a message directed at thousands of hit men who work for drug cartels that terrorize Mexicans. "Believe and repent," the sign she was holding said.
The sign caught the attention of Nora Ramos, a Ciudad Juarez resident who happened to be in the area. "I was passing by and I thought it was beautiful to see young people with a positive message. They're doing something to change all of the bad things happening here in Juarez," Ramos said.
Nineteen-year-old Daniel Diaz is one of 25 messenger angels. He lives in an impoverished neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez and says he used to steal to get money for drugs. His new faith in Christ, he says, has changed his life.
"When I told my friends about my change, they wouldn't believe me. They thought I was joking. They told me I was crazy because no one can change overnight. But when you set your mind to change, it can happen," Diaz said.
The young messenger angels, all between the ages of 15 and 22, go out at night as well. They risk their lives by standing at crime scenes, places where there have been shootouts or where decapitated bodies have been found.
Messenger angel Edgar Sanchez says their messages are directed at both people who have chosen the wrong path and those suffering for different reasons. "The main goal for us angels is to send a warning to corrupt politicians, [a message of hope] to a woman suffering from cancer or other disease and compassion to dysfunctional families," Sanchez says.
Even though they go to some of the most dangerous places in the border town, including neighborhoods controlled by violent gangs, so far no one has been attacked or injured. But they recently had a problem with the police.
While standing outside of a police station, youth minister Mayorga and one of the youth were momentarily detained and taken inside the building. "They realized that we were only trying to send a message of peace in a public place and exercising our free speech rights," Mayorga said. "They released us shortly after our conversation."
There was also resistance from parents of some of the youth who objected to their children going to risky places. Mayorga says he and the youth convinced the adults with a "powerful" argument. "God is with us," he says. "After a period of prayer and fasting, we decided to move ahead with our plan."