The Human Cost of Border Policy
The Devil's Highway
by Luis Alberto Urrea





Sixteen bodies were found, but as many as 26 living men may have started as one group that passed from the third world to Los Yunaites Estaites.


The Devil’s Highway: A True Story
Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company, 2004
$16.97 hardcover

By George B. Sánchez

Josée de Jesús Rodríguez. Enrique Landeros García. Reyno Bartolo Hernández. Lorenzo Ortíz Hernández. Nahúm Landa Ortíz. Reymundo Barreda Maruri. Reymundo Barreda Maruri Jr.

For no reason should these names be familiar. Mexicanos from intimate villages in Veracruz and Hidalgo; according to Sr. Urrea, they came to the United States to work in the shadows, as migrants usually do, to pick oranges or whatever fruit was in season, and provide for their families.
They made it. At least some of them did. Sixteen bodies were found, but as many as 26 living men may have started as one group that passed in May of 2001 from the third world to Los Yunaites Estaites. Like many more before them, they walked among the sand and saguaros in triple degree heat through an unforgiving stretch of southern Arizona desert known as Cabeza Prieta and the Devil’s Highway.

Urrea explains the Devil’s Highway as such: “Tohono O’Odham poet Ofelia Zepeda has pointed out that rosaries and Hail Marys don’t work out here. 'You need a new kind of prayers,' she says, 'to negotiate with this land.””

The story begins in the tropical southern state of Veracruz as each individual strikes a deal with the coyote’s recruiter, who arranges for them to travel by bus to the dusty border of Sonoita. There, they meet their pollero – Mexican slang for the human smuggler that leads men and woman from Mexico into the United States – and on Saturday, May 19, 2001 they begin their trek. Led by 20-year-old Jesús López Ramos, the group’s seemingly simple cut through the desert mutated into something quite different. Four days later their bodies were discovered by a Border Patrol agent.

Urrea pores over every fact with care and attention, recreating, as best possible, the perilous trip, including the nine excruciating pages where the author details the six stages that lead to heat death.

As a story, "The Devil’s Highway" is fascinating. As a work of art, it is stark and startling. As reportage, it is impressive. As an indictment of border policy, it is damning. Few authors would attempt such a feat and even less could pull it off.

"The Devil’s Highway" is a story about immigration, but this is their story. By no means is this story necessarily unique. On the contrary, such acts of both desperation and bravery are repeated daily by hundreds along the Mexican-United States border. However, "The Devil’s Highway" is their account – the walkers, the polleros, la migra, and the consulate – the ones you never hear from. And Urrea weaves their stories into one with a striking “novel as history” attitude that blends investigative reporting, oral history, and poetry into a breathtaking narrative.

© 2005 El Andar Magazine