The Devil’s Highway is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a national best seller written by Luis Alberto Urrea. The novel is based on a true story and tragedy that occurred in May 2001. This tragedy is in regards to the Yuma-14 and their attempt to cross the Mexican border into the southern region of Arizona. This group of 26 is the largest documented group to attempt to cross into the United States and the deadliest attempt that resulted in 14 deaths. The novel presents the story of the Yuma-14, however, it is not just the story of their journey, but the greater issues and concerns regarding immigration.
The novel begins by providing historical context on immigration and the Devil’s Highway. The book states that the first documented death in the area occurred in 1541. The part of the border that the Yuma-14 was crossing was patrolled by hundreds of border patrol officers, but five of the 12 surviving men approached Mike F. , a border patrol officer. One of the five men tell Mike F. that they had been abandoned by their Coyote, which angers the patrol officer and calls for help. The Yuma-14 caused arguments between the different sectors, towns, and stations, over which area got to claim the deaths.
The novel describes the reasons why these 26 men decided to embark on this terribly dangerous journey to cross the Mexican border into the United States. One of the men, Reymundo Barreda decided to embark on this journey so that he could expand and fix the roof on his house for his wife. He planned on only staying in the United States for a summer just to earn enough money to fix his house. Reymundo Barreda’s son yearned for adventure and wanted to go with his father to the United States so that he could buy his mother furniture for their newly-remodeled house.
In addition to Reymundo Barreda and his son, Reymundo Barreda’s brother-in-law, Nahum Landa signed up to go with them to the United States. Others signed up to embark on this journey as well, including Enrique Landeros Garcia who needed money to provide his son a proper education. Reyno Bartolo Hernandez wanted to go the United States to earn enough money to adopt a child. Finally, Mario Castillo Fernandez needed money to provide his two children with a proper education. All of these men turned to a recruiter for the northern Coyotes, Don Moi Garcia.
The Yuma-14 who had trusted Don Moi Garcia to direct them safely into the United States, were actually just part of a terrible illegal operation run by Luis Cercas. The Yuma-14 and the 12 surviving men were all brought into the desert and then were abandoned by the guides that was supposed to bring them to the United States. The 26 men were brought into the desert by three guides, who did not do many provide many of the services that are usually provided. One of these services is providing the walkers with drugs, such as cocaine to allow the men to walk at a faster pace.
Once the surviving men were rescued, they struggled to even remember their own names. The leader of the 26 men is a young man known to the border patrol agents as “Rooster Boy”, but his real name is Jesus. Jesus became interested in becoming a Coyote for monetary purposes and the influence of his friend Rodrigo Maradona. After Jesus successfully learns the route, border patrol learns the route, forcing Jesus to travel through the center of the Devil’s Highway. The new route that Jesus and Rodrigo Maradona is far more dangerous than their previous route and the journey would last two to three days.
The land on the new route was rougher than the previous and very little water sources. Jesus falls in love and marries Celia Mendez, and takes her last name. One week prior to the 26 men beginning their fatal journey to the United States, Mendez and Maradona brought another group through the Devil’s Highway. However, a border patrol officer found and apprehended Mendez and the group, but Maradona manages to escape with one of the walkers. Three brothers who were apprehended decided to attempt crossing the Devil’s Highway again with the group of 26.
When the day comes for the group of 26 men to make the dangerous journey, Maradona is no where to be found, so Jesus calls for replacement Coyotes. After the 26 men board the bus and cross into the United States, they walked until they were all crammed inside a Dodge Ram and drove for an hour and a half, and then began to walk across the Devil’s Highway until sunrise. Mendez and the 26 walkers see lights and fear that it is a border patrol officer, so many of the walkers dropped their belongings and began to run.
Mendez directs the men to continue on, even though he does not know where they are. Many people die walking through the Devil’s Highway from hyperthermia, which has six stages. The group of 26 men walk through Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge with little to no water left. If Mendez had been more educated on the refuge, the walkers would have been able access seven different water sources. Mendez, having no idea where he is going, leads the walkers to Yuma. One of the walkers’ questions Mendez and decides to go back to Mexico, a few other walkers joined him.
Many of the walkers following Mendez are disappointed and angry at how the journey has gone because they are all going to America for the benefit of their families, which they cannot do if they do not make it across the Devil’s Highway. The next day, May 21, Mendez decides to leave with the other guide, Lauro, to go find a source of water, however, the men were abandoned and realized that Mendez was not coming back to help them. The group of men decided to travel north because that is the direction that Mendez walked in on his search for water. They decided to light a fire to attract border patrol officers, so that they can be rescued.
The following day, deaths starts to occur. The first person of the Yuma-14 whose body gave up is Edgar Martinez and then Abraham Morales. The men begin to go insane due to the heat and dehydration. Two of the men find pears from a cactus and drink the fruits liquid. However, Reymundo Barreda’s son passes away next to his father, which causes Reymundo Barreda to lose hope along with another man and they just lay down in the desert to die. Mendez and Lauro are still alive and managed to walk forty miles in the unbearable heat. However, Lauro gets sick and passes away. Mendez takes Lauro’s money and finds shade to get some rest.
Wednesday, May 23, five walkers remain alive and able to continue walking, however, Efrain Manzano climbs a nearby mountain to see if help is that way, but is to sick and tired to return back down the mountain. This is the same day that Mike F. finds the five men. Mario Manzano, one of the five men tells Mike F. about his brother, but his brother died. Mike F. calls for back up and within minutes, helicopters flew over the desert searching for bodies and border patrol vehicles searched the area. The helicopters find a group of ten men: nine living and one dead. Border patrol quickly rescues the men.
The helicopter then spots Edgar Martinez, who surprisingly is still alive, even though he was the first to fall. However, Edgar’s body gave out within minutes of being rescued. Illegal immigrants requiring emergency health care within the United States cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars. The United States spends billions of dollars protecting the border, which causes Coyotes to raise prices. As an effect of rising prices being charged, fewer Mexicans will leave the United States and go back to Mexico. The surviving twelve men receive medical attention within hours and all have damage to their kidneys.
Out of the twelve men: one was in critical condition, two were in serious condition, and the remaining men were in fair condition. In addition to the nine men, Mendez was also saved and receiving medical attention. The men were being questioned by both doctors and government officials and Rita Vargas, who is the Mexican consul for the areas surrounding Yuma. All of the twelve men told authorities that Mendez was to blame for the tragedy. All of the surviving men were arrested and once they recovered, they would head to Phoenix to jail. Investigators begin collecting evidence from the interrogations to use against Mendez.
Mendez wrote a letter seeking forgiveness, however, that would not be enough as he killed fourteen men. The fourteen men who had died during the journey were identified and families were contacted with the exception of the other guide, Lauro. The fourteen men were flown back to Mexico costing sixty-eight thousand dollars. Mendez pleads guilty on all counts against him in order to avoid the death penalty. The twelve surviving men were granted immunity and were allowed to stay and work in Phoenix, in exchange for their testimonies. After what happened to the Yuma-14, the border tensions decreased until 9/11.
Since 9/11, the tragedy of the Yuma-14 has changed very little in the immigration crisis. All of the Yuma-14 were listed as white males in their documents. I had never heard of the Devil’s Highway or of the Yuma-14 prior to reading this novel. This novel did not just touch on the Yuma-14, but about the bigger issue of immigration that is plaguing the United States. One thing that I found to be very interesting in the novel is that many of the twenty-six men were only going to the United States for the short-term and expected to return back to Mexico within a year or two.
In addition to this, I found the reasons that these men were going to the United States to be very respectable. For example, Reymundo Barreda “had resolved to go north to expand and reroof his small house as a gift for his wife” (Urrea, 51). All of the men are trying to earn enough money in the United States for their families. Another thing that I found to be infuriating is that many men pay Coyotes to help them with the journey across the border and trust them with their lives, but are often abandoned. This infuriated me, especially with Mendez, who left the men to die after taking their cash and tried to save himself.
The men were all in that situation because Mendez had gotten lost and they had to walk around aimlessly in the desert heat. I found the monetary statistics used in the novel to be very eye opening and interesting. I knew that the United States spends billions of dollars protecting the border, what I did not realize was that “seventy-seven hospitals throughout the American Southwest were losing about $190 million in unpaid bills, and tens of millions of these could be attributed to medical attention for illegals, including those dropped off by the Border Patrol” (Urrea, 179).
I was surprised that the twelve surviving men were offered immunity and were able to stay in the United States and were even given jobs at a factory. I was not expecting this, even though they faced horrible conditions, they were entering the United States illegally. I do believe that the conditions that the 26 men faced were unfair and the failure of the journey was on Mendez, however, I do not necessarily believe they should be granted to stay in the United States. There are still tensions between the United States and Mexico today.
One thing that I did not know was that after 9/11 “an open border suddenly seemed like an act of war, or a flagrant display of foolishness. The United States was gunning for bad guys” (Urrea, 204). I had never heard that prior to 9/11 and after the Yuma-14, there was a possibility for an open border between the United States and Mexico. I do understand why after 9/11, the United States set stricter immigration laws and increased border patrol, what I do not understand is why we made Mexico out to be the bad guys. Mexico and its citizens had no part of the horrific actions of 9/11.