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Our word angel comes from, among other places, the Greek word for messenger. Angels play an important role in the Christmas story, among other things, bringing news of the birth of the Christ child. But in the violent border city of Juarez, Mexico, angels play a very different role. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the messenger angels there are young evangelicals who go out into the city to silently protest murder and corruption.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's Saturday morning in the barrio called New Land, at the ragged edge of Juarez, and the angels are getting ready to go to work.
Fifteen young people are gluing goose down recovered from cast-off comforters onto plastic wings. Others are smearing on silver makeup - this, presumably, being the color of angels. So far, it could be any other church youth group preparing for a Christmas pageant, but that's about to change. An intense, 33-year-old man in black glasses, wearing a T-shirt that says Love for Juarez, is in charge.
CARLOS MAYORGA: (Through Translator) My name is Carlos Mayorga. I'm the youth leader for the Psalm 100 Church in Ciudad Juarez, in Chihuahua, Mexico. What we're doing here is preparing signs and wings and robes so that we can go out into the street to give our message of peace to this dangerous border city.
BURNETT: A chill north wind blows feathers across a barren lot that's bounded by a cinderblock wall covered with ugly graffiti, which is interrupted by a sign that says: Our Father, Free Us From Sin. Patricia Gonzalez, a heavyset woman with a beatific smile, is co-pastor of the tiny church.
PATRICIA GONZALEZ: (Through Translator) In 2010, when we began this campaign, we were a little afraid because we were addressing murderers and corrupt police. But we're in God's hands, and we're not afraid now. We want to do something to reach their consciences.
BURNETT: The angels are packed into a decrepit, green van nicknamed The Weenie, on their way to the first stop of the day. Their wings are strapped on the roof. They know they've sort of become celebrities, and they're having a blast.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEER, LAUGHTER)
BURNETT: The van pulls up in front of a Soriana supermarket, at a busy intersection. The angels, well-rehearsed, take their positions on street corners and medians. They stand on folding chairs in long, white robes that make them look like giants. And then they freeze. Mayorga says he got the idea from the living statues who earn tips from tourists.
It's really an extraordinary scene. These young people dressed as angels all in white with their faces painted silver, and these great wings blowing in the desert wind. And they're standing at a big, urban intersection here in the middle of Juarez, and they're holding signs. And this one says: Assassin, Repent, Christ Loves You. And another is standing over here next to a lady selling red chili, and it says: Corrupt Police, Look For God.
A factory worker named Ramiro Mendez, with a sack full of groceries, watches from the sidewalk, transfixed.
RAMIRO MENDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: It's good what they're doing, he says, because of the violence there is. I hope no one hurts them. And does he think Juarez needs to see these messages?
MENDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: The truth is, yes. There have been lots of marches and everything, he continues, but they haven't achieved anything. The violence continues.
Juarez has five or six murders a day, on average, according to figures maintained by Molly Molloy at New Mexico State University. That's down from nearly 10 bodies a day last year, but residents still consider the killings intolerable. There are regular, noisy marches for peace and justice in this lawless city, but the messenger angels practice silent witness. And no one said it would be easy.
DAVID RUBALCAVA: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: The sign is heavy, and the wind blows our wings. Yeah, this work is tiring, says 17-year-old David Rubalcava.
RUBALCAVA: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: Sometimes we get positive responses from the people and sometimes negative responses, he continues. Some people don't like it. They tell us we're going to get shot. But it's more important what God thinks about us.
Similar angel groups have sprung up in other conflicted Mexican cities, such as Torreon, Veracruz and Matamoros, Coahuila. But this is the gutsiest gang of angels. They don't just stand on street corners. They go to the heart of darkness in this violent city: the crime scenes. Carlos Mayorga, the youth minister, is a TV reporter during the week, so his buddies on the police beat feed him fresh homicide reports, and he races there in the rattletrap van.
MAYORGA: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: As the angels pull into a neglected neighborhood, Mayorga tells them to take their places quickly, and be respectful of the family that has just lost a loved one.
The corpse of a man sprawls facedown on the dirt street. A forensic team is busy taking photographs and collecting evidence, but most Juarenses would regard this as a farce. Murders are rarely solved in Juarez, and the police are widely believed to be in the pocket of one or the other drug cartel. Blue-uniformed officers shouldering assault rifles glower at the silver-skinned teenagers as they pull on their wings. A commander saunters over and instructs them to move away from the police tape. Mayorga, with the nerve of a police reporter, pushes back.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: (Foreign language spoken)
MAYORGA: (Through Translator) You already have it cordoned off. Let us be here. We're not interrupting your investigation. Let us give our message of peace.
BURNETT: Two angels climb onto a tin roof, and hold up their signs for the cops to see. A plainclothes officer wearing sunglasses is asked, what does he think of the sign that says: Corrupt Police, Seek God?
(Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: We're a free country. They can say what they want, he answers, walking away. We're all searching for God.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
BURNETT: After 20 minutes, the angels gather around a group of neighbors that has been quietly watching the strange tableau. The church group prays with them for employment, for better living conditions, for salvation from sin, and for an end to the murders.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
BURNETT: After the prayer, several of the residents are weeping. The messenger angels clamber back into the old van. It rattles off down the rutted street, goose down fluttering from the wings strapped to the roof, like snowflakes.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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