Riding the rails with Miguel Fuentes and the Guardian Angels

June 20, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

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Miguel Fuentes loves to talk about how short he was when he was just a kid growing up near Chicago Lawn. At just under five feet, he didn’t stand much of a chance against some of the rougher elements of his neighborhood. Fuentes still lives in the same area, but as Chicago chapter leader and national director of the Guardian Angels, he stands much taller today.

Fuentes knew he wanted to be a Guardian Angel when he was a kid and joined at age sixteen, six years before it would have been possible for him to become a cop. Fuentes had seen the Angels riding the rails late at night, protecting his neighbors, and felt the urge to don the red beret. It wasn't until he accidentally bumped into the founder of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa, on a Blue Line train bound for O’Hare, however, that he got the chance to ask for a brochure and sign up. Twenty-four years later, Fuentes plays a crucial role in expanding the organization to cities and suburbs throughout the country and expanding the group’s platform beyond transit systems.

I asked Fuentes how it was that I’d managed to live in Chicago for four years without hearing of the Guardian Angels. He said that I clearly haven’t been riding the Red Line south of Roosevelt after 10pm very often. Fair enough. But their media profile has been on the rise in the last month. After getting stabbed while trying to apprehend a man on the Red Line who had just pistol-whipped and mugged a passenger, Fuentes and his patrol-members popped up in a variety of news outlets. It was far from the first time Fuentes had been injured in the line of duty, but he is keenly aware of how technology has changed the job, making him and his fellow Angels more prominent. It’s also allowed for the creation of Fuentes’ newest enemy, flash mobs.

The Guardian Angels have increased their presence in Streeterville and around Red Line stations, according to Chicago Now, in preparation for this summer. Angels never carry weapons of any kind and, unlike cops, can’t make arrests for minor infractions like smoking on a train platform. Still, they know how to recognize a likely crime scenario – kids trying to intimidate riders in groups, or a lone individual riding the train for hours without getting off. The Angels’ goal is to deter crime with their presence, or as Fuentes says, “To let people know they’re being watched.” That’s why they wear the red shirts and flashy hats, and also why they pat each other down before each and every patrol.

In the Internet age, Fuentes says, a single Guardian Angel caught with using a weapon could discredit the whole organization, which is something he won’t stand for. Before signing on a new Angel, Fuentes interviews them on the phone and in person, asking typical interview questions, but also questions about who they like and who their friends are. Often he’ll offer to drive them home and then drop by their homes and neighborhoods again to see if things are calm. Then, Angels go through not only physical training but also some legal training on what Angels are and are not allowed to do.

When Fuentes started with the Angels back in 1988, their relationship with the CPD was rocky, but not for the reason I would have thought. Vigilantism was the word that first came to mind when I first heard about the Angels, and I imagined a lot of grizzled cops bemoaning those meddling Angels. Instead, what Fuentes told me is that cops who spent their days arresting black and Latino youths for gang activity were not liable to believe that the Guardian Angels—a a roving group of mostly black and Latino youths—were not a gang. “Cops don’t buy that the guardian angels aren’t gangbangers,” Fuentes told me. Today, though, he says the relationship is better, and that if the Angels see an undercover transit cop, they’ll leave the station and let the cops take charge.

Another rule is that Guardian Angels have to be in school or have a job to be an active patrol member. Before he went to electrician school, Fuentes was a CDL truck driver making deliveries throughout the city, including to WBEZ’s very own studios on Navy Pier! Today he returns to chat with The Afternoon Shift about how the Guardian Angels are expanding, why their making headlines, and what role they will play in Chicago’s peacekeeping infrastructure in the coming summer months.