By: Christina E. Rodriguez
A group of citizens rides the trains every night in Chicago. They can be seen on the Red, Blue and Green lines anytime after 8 p.m. They dress in an unmistakable style: red berets, red jackets, white t-shirts, black pants and military boots. They look like they own the place — which in a way they do.
They’re not members of the Chicago Police Department. They’re not vigilantes. They’re not gangbangers, nor are they going to cause any harm. They’re private citizens who call themselves the Guardian Angels, and they’re out to protect their city.
“They’re civilians going out, helping law enforcement,” said Officer Paul Morin, with the police department’s public transportation section. “[They’re just] being an extra set of eyes.” The Alliance of Guardian Angels, Inc., an international volunteer patrol organization geared toward fighting neighborhood crime, was founded in 1979 in New York City by Curtis Sliwa with only 13 other members. Thirty years later, the Guardian Angels can be found in 136 cities worldwide.
Miguel Fuentes, 38, is chapter leader for the Chicago Guardian Angels, as well as supervisor for other Midwest chapters, including Milwaukee and St. Louis. He has been a member of the group since he was 16. After seeing the Guardian Angels on television he wanted to join the organization to help people; he also wanted to learn self-defense. While riding the Blue Line he met Sliwa, who handed him a pamphlet about the group. After three months of training, Fuentes was in.
“I fell in love with it,” Fuentes said of his Guardian Angels work. Fuentes, then a junior at Gage Park High School on Chicago’s South Side, didn’t tell his parents what he was up to. He would do his homework and then head out on patrols. When his parents found out three months later, his father was infuriated and kicked his son out of the house, but eventually let him return home.
“Just like any parent, especially any [Mexican] parent, you worry about your kids getting into gangs, drugs, any criminal activity or just hanging out with the wrong people,” Fuentes explained. “[My father] was worried about my safety and my well-being. He still worries.”
By the time Fuentes was 17 he was in charge of 50 volunteers and used to partake in Guardian Angel activities every day of the week. Now, there are 30 active members plus alumni members. Alumni members no longer go on patrol but are still active in their local chapters. “They help start groups, help train members, advise chapters and help out whenever they can,” Fuentes said.
The three months of Guardian Angel training includes patroling, self defense and physical fitness, and they carry no weapons. “We encourage members to work out at home. We train once or twice a week. We train in hand-to-hand combat,” Fuentes said. “We train in boxing and some grappling.”
The group works alongside Chicago police, especially when it comes to safety precautions. The Guardian Angels make citizen arrests and hold criminals until police arrive, but they don’t seek out criminals.
“We are more of a deterrent. Our purpose is not to just go out and make arrests,” said Fuentes. “We try to prevent crimes before they are committed.”
William Townsell, assistant director of Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), has worked with the Guardian Angels on safety presentations. “We view community policing as multifaceted,” said Townsell. “[The Guardian Angels] are going out and creating a visible presence. They’re doing what we encourage people to do.”
CAPS considers the Guardian Angels group an ally rather than a competitor. Both organizations are usually called out when there are patterns of crimes in particular neighborhoods.
“We don’t make laws,” Fuentes said. “We’re not causing problems.”
In the past, the group’s offices could be found around Chicago; it once had it local headquarters in the Wicker Park neighborhood due to the area’s high crime rates. Now it doesn’t have a headquarters; instead groups of volunteers meet every night to patrol train stations. Fuentes thought meeting in different locations cut down on the costs of owning or renting a building.
“We had no bills, like electrical, heat and phone,” he said. “Remember, we are volunteers so we don’t have money to continue paying bills. We meet up at certain locations, patrol and train, and then go home.”