On May 19, 2001, 26 men crossed the border from Mexico into the searing desert of southern Arizona. They intended to find work as orange pickers. By the time the U.S. Border Patrol found the group strewn across the landscape four days later, 14 were dead from the heat. In his powerful new book, The Devil's Highway, author Luis Alberto Urrea introduces the principal players in this tragedy the illegal walkers, the smugglers who misled them and the goal-conflicted Border Patrol and takes readers on a harrowing journey from the streets of Veracruz to a morgue in Arizona.
There have been worse border tragedies since, but this one loomed large at the time, both because of the number of men who died and the embarrassment it caused both nations. "It was the largest manhunt in Border Patrol history," Urrea tells BookPage from his home in Naperville, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. "It was a historic event. I think it was exacerbated by the fact that the survivors turned around and sued the United States. It would have led to some serious border changes if 9/11 hadn't happened."
The most harrowing segment of the book is Urrea's step-by-step account of the effect on the men's bodies as the sun relentlessly drains them of all moisture. "I had no idea how bad it was," he says. "I guess I thought you die of thirst. I was always thinking of those desert movies, like The Flight of the Phoenix, where Jimmy Stewart is walking around with chapped lips. I didn't really think about what happens to your body. That came from seeing the actual death pictures. When you go in those archives, they've got a baggie—a Ziploc baggie where they put whatever the guy was carrying when he died. So their files still smell like rotting flesh. When you're looking at the pictures of their autopsies, you're smelling their bodies at the same time. It's just overwhelming to realize how those guys suffered and how crazy some of them were when they died [like] trying to bury themselves. One guy was naked and had tried to swim in the dirt."
It was not the magnitude of tragedy, however, that got Urrea involved. "It actually began with my editor at Little, Brown, Geoff Shandler," a native of New Mexico who had read all of Urrea's books and thought the story might interest him. "He asked me if I wanted to look into it and see if there was something to write about. Of course, there was." Already an acclaimed poet, short story writer and essayist, Urrea says the yearlong project called for a major shift in his approach to writing. "I wasn't used to doing narrative investigative reporting. All I could think to do was actually go there and just try to get in places. That's how it worked out and partially why it took so long."
This is not a political book at least not in the sense of taking sides or calling for a particular action. What it does is personalize human misery on so vast a scale that it is usually portrayed exclusively in statistics. There is plenty of blame to go around. "The frustration in the [American] field," says Urrea, "is that [the Border Patrol] realizes that they are puppets. All of the interdiction stuff is not really sincere. I got several eye-opening examples of their being ordered not to do anything [but] 'just let them in.' I was actually shown by an ABC Radio guy a letter that they had given him from Washington, telling the Border Patrol that there was a shortage of pickers in the Imperial Valley [of California] and that they had to hold off interdiction for a certain number of days."
For its part, Urrea continues, Mexico is choking under "a huge foreign debt it can't repay and its own corruption. It's very beneficial to Mexico that these workers [come to the U. S.]. It relieves a lot of social tension. It empties out the countryside of the poor and the needy. It stops revolution from happening. And it's sending back a tidal wave of money. The remittance money from the United States is the second or third largest source of income in Mexico now. I guess you could argue that we have an extremely generous foreign policy. It's just being filtered through McDonald's."