Study Guide

The Devil's Highway

by Luis Alberto Urrea

The Devil's Highway Summary

Introduction

The Devil’s Highway, written by journalist Luis Alberto Urrea, is a true story about Mexican migration into the United States. It retells the tragic story from May of 2001 when a group of men attempted to cross the U.S. border. After entering the desert of Arizona, they endured the deadliest region in North America, the Devil’s Highway. The Border Patrol does not even travel through it. Twenty-six men entered the region, and only twelve people survived. It was the largest group of border-event deaths in history.

This story became an international tragedy after it focused attention on the heartbreak and astounding physical trials of such a journey. The Yuma-14 (or the Wellstone 26), as the group is called, also shed light on the problems of U.S. immigration and the complex relationship between the United States and Mexico.

Urrea focuses on the individual subjects and the circumstances that brought them to make the decision to cross the border and risk death. Most readers can comprehend that life may be better in the United States than in Mexico, but how much better? The desperation can be counted out in pesos—not enough can be earned to eat, have shelter, buy clothes, or have any opportunity for an education for children within Mexico. Large families are the elderly person’s retirement plan.

From the small towns south of the border, Urrea introduces readers to each illegal immigrant and the guides. He invests the reader in their hopes and dreams. Urrea reaches back to Mexico and its roots: Native American tribes, Spanish explorers and missionaries, and smugglers and human traffickers. All represent a complex set of values: religion, money, superstition, native Indian culture, and black magic. Most of all, Urrea draws attention to the Coyotes, or guides, who work like gang members to get ahead. The group of walkers, or illegals, put their lives into the Coyotes' hands. In this case, the Coyotes lead them to a desperate trail that results in unimaginable physical hardship, disorientation, and death for most of them. The Devil’s Highway is a remarkable story of human fortitude, courage, and utter bafflement.

The Devil's Highway Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

The Rules of the Game

The Devil’s Highway is a barren, scorched road on the border of Arizona. It is riddled with spirits, the plants are spiked and poisonous, and the animals are alien, nocturnal, and poisonous. In some places, boulders have been arranged as secret signs by both travelers and the Border Patrol. Surprisingly, the northward immigration was a “white phenomenon.” In the 1880s, railroad barons needed cheap labor and enticed Chinese workers to migrate from Mexico. Now, Muslims are proselytizing just across the border, and many of the illegals are actually indigenous Indians who live in abject poverty.  

On January 18, 1541, the first death on The Devil’s Highway was recorded, though surely others had died before then. The Catholics and Jesuits inhabited the land in the 1600s and death followed them, too. The gold rush in the 1800s marked the “modern era of death.” The Devil’s Highway was still just a dirt path, but thousands came to find riches. Piles of human bones (now buried) show that many died on the journey. Others were slaughtered by rogue Mexican armies which wanted their belongings. Soon this place was known as “the most terrible place in the world,” a place of haunting and demonic activity.

Five Mexican men stumble onto The Devil’s Highway, parched and delirious, so desperate that they are not afraid to approach a Border Patrol car. One of the men steps forward. Mike F. is the agent in the car and he calls for help. Bad people appear here regularly; many of them are dying and most of them are in trouble. Agent Mike gives the men water (which they throw up), and one man claims there are seven more men behind them dying. Another says that there are thirty men, and a third claims there are seventy. Border Patrol has been worried that an apocalypse is coming, and Mike F. fears this is might be it.

This part of the border is patrolled by fifteen hundred...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

In Veracruz

Veracruz, which means “The True Cross,” is located between the mountains and the sea in southern Mexico. The people are poor no matter how hard they work. Before the wave of northern illegal immigration, workers stayed and tourism flourished. The people can afford less as prices continue to rise, and families continue to grow. People are hungry, and in “the economy of hunger,” more babies means a better chance of survival; even if one in five dies, four will survive and becomes workers. There are not even enough beans to eat, for they are all shipped to the United States; only the recycled bean sacks make their way to Veracruz to be used for curtains.

All of Mexico is suffering, spending eighty cents on every earned dollar on foreign debt; all the illegal narcotics money stays in the “clandestine mansions.” As men migrate north to work, some money begins to arrive from the United States, and men come home in big American cars and trucks. They fill their vehicles at a Goodwill in Texas and sell everything for twice as much in Mexico. Once their wares are sold, they sell the vehicles, too. Rural black markets are common, and some people are beginning to have contact with the rest of the world through satellite television and the Internet. Some women come home with “babies who were supposedly American citizens.”

Meanwhile, the neighbors of these entrepreneurs are dying. Rampant disease and spreading violence cause people to look north, and they turn to Don Moi Garcia, a recruiter for the northern Coyotes. He is a grandfatherly “walking ad for the good life.” He is a kind of Robin Hood for the people of Veracruz. Four thousand men have already left and more are preparing to go. It costs twenty thousand pesos to cross safely; however, “if they’re man enough to walk in the desert” they can save seven thousand pesos. The men take out loans with an unscrupulous man, Chespiro,...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

The Coyote and the Chicken

The Border Patrol and the Mexican consular corps often work together because each has a “deep distrust of its own government” and despise Coyotes, the human smugglers who regularly traffic across the border. Although Mexican soldiers are paid to patrol the Mexico side of the border, they undoubtedly are paid more by the Coyotes and rarely are seen. For a time, the Mexican government offered survival kits, including condoms, to all walkers, but the American government stopped the program.

Fifteen hundred walkers a day leave Mexico near the Devil’s Highway. Newspapers later report that a group of walkers called the Wellton 26 crossed the border somewhere between Yuma and Nogales. There is little there to keep any walkers from crossing—perhaps a “drooping bit of wire fence” or a small sign advising that crossing the border into America is prohibited.

The process is similar for all who illegally enter the United States. The smugglers tell the walkers that it is a simple “day’s walk to their pickup point.” Often that is the case, and once they cross, the illegals go to places like North Carolina (to make cigarettes) or Chicago.

Men like Don Moi do business in Altar, where busloads or vanloads of walkers are randomly dispersed. Several of the Wellton 26 stopped in Altar, where their disastrous journey began. (Now, thanks to Operation Gatekeeper, a border fence extends into the ocean in the west and stops somewhere in the wastelands of deserts and mountains. Suburbs have “sprung up” in “regions formerly notorious as a human hunting ground.” The walkers who once crossed here now have to move east and have two thousand miles of desert from which to choose.)  

Altar is the largest center for illegal immigration along the entire border. Coyotes are known in Altar as "polleros"—chicken wranglers. These criminals are so powerfully entrenched that any walkers without a pollero must pay a fee just to enter the desert.

The Yuma 14 (the 14 members of the Wellton 25 who died) were lured into the desert and then abandoned by an operation run by Luis Cercas. His brother Daniel, known as “Chespiro,” never meets them but takes their money and gives the orders that determine their travel route.

El Negro is part of the Cercas family and guide for the Yuma 14. It is an intimidating chain of command, from Chespiro down to soldiers, drivers, and guides (Coyotes). The guides are as expendable as the walkers as there are plenty of fools to do the job. Locals are paid to assist the process.

Polleros gather their pollos, and vans arrive to pick them up. Anyone who does not move quickly enough is left behind to die; the Coyotes are “stone-cold pragmatists.” After their arrival in Phoenix, the walkers are shipped all over the country as needed, again under the supervision of the Cercas family. Don Mio is a Cercas relative. 

Chapter 4 Summary

El Guìa

“Three guides led the Wellton 26 into the desert: one will forever remain anonymous, one is only known by a code name, and one became infamous in the borderland.” Guides (guìas) are generally paid a hundred dollars per person to lead people across the border and never reveal their names so they cannot be identified.

The guides for the Wellton 26 did very few things right; one of them is that they did not give their walkers cocaine or other drugs to help them walk faster and longer.

The leader is a nineteen-year-old Guadalajaran boy. If his clients had not died, he would have earned three hundred dollars for this job. It is the largest group he has ever guided. He...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Jesús Walks Among Us

The Border Patrol knows him as Rooster Boy, but his name is Jesús. He once lived in southern Mexico and now lives in Nogales, Sonora, which is a “lively little town” just across the border from Nogales, Arizona. He works hard but gets little for his labor and wants something better.

In 2000, he meets eighteen-year-old Rodrigo Maradona. They work in a brickyard during the day; at night, Maradona has a more interesting job working part time as a Coyote, earning a hundred dollars for each walker he takes across the border—a thousand dollars a week, compared to Jesús’ hundred dollars a week. Maradona tells Jesús he can...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

In Sonoita

Jesús and Maradona stay at the Mexican border Hotel San Antonio in Sonoita, where Chespiro keeps rooms permanently booked, and wait for a call. It is a horrible place. El Negro comes himself to place the boys with their local mentors.

The new smuggling route is dangerous, anywhere from 35 to 65 miles long, depending on the eventual destination of the walkers. El Negro’s scouts cut a trail that should get them where they need to be in two days, three at the most; if they have to detour, there are several million acres of possibilities. The terrain here is more difficult with very few water sources—and neither Jesús nor Maradona knows where to find them.

Between...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

A Pepsi for the Apocalypse

Perhaps this is how Mendez’s day began on Saturday, May 19. He wakes early at Celia’s house in a noisy barrio. The temperature only dropped to 89 degrees last night, and it is hot at seven o’clock this morning; Mendez is already sweaty. He is no longer frightened, but he is apprehensive, as always.

Maradona is late, so Mendez goes to his friend’s house to get him; however, Maradona’s doors are locked and his windows are too dark and dirty to see through. “Mendez will always wonder what happened to his homeboy.”

Maradona is the one with experience, so Mendez calls El Negro, who says he will “handle it.” Mendez goes to Nelly’s boarding...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Bad Step at Bluebird

It is brutal walking for even the youngest and fittest walkers. The men grumble, but Mendez knows La Migra cannot catch them if they stay in the mountains and cliffs. They cannot be seen by air, and Border Patrol agents will not hike after them. So, they keep climbing.

Mendez is younger than all but one walker and keeps them marching. The Coyotes whistle as they walk so they do not have to talk or listen to the complaints. (This is the beginning of days of walking, and the pollos begin to “lose themselves,” forgetting any of the names and locations they might have heard.) Mendez leads them from his Coyote map of “landmarks etched with transient memory” without...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Killed by the Light

It is Sunday at six o’clock in the morning on the Sonoran Dessert, and it is already hot. Mendez insists he is not lost, but the workers doubt him because he is leading them back across the Growlers, a mountain range they have already crossed. The mountains collect the light and “pour it on them like lava.”

It is not only Mexicans who die in the desert; campers, off-roaders, and others also succumb. In June 2002, one couple enjoys a day of dune-buggying; however, the buggy breaks down and both die. He made it two hundred yards and she never left the buggy; neither was found for more than two days. One month later, another couple suffers the same fate near the...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

The Long Walk

It is Sunday, May 20, at dawn. The Wellton 26 survivors are later as unclear about the day’s torments “as they are about where they walked.” The walkers are now in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge area.

As the walkers’ despair grows, so does their rage. They are angry at Mendez, the desert, their own government, the American government, white people (gringos), Don Moi, El Negro—and they are determined that someone is going to pay for their misery once the walkers get out of the desert.

It is clear from evidence discovered later that Mendez knew his pollos were going to die if they did not get to Ajo. (The Border Patrol believes Mendez was only...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Their Names

This is José de Jesús Rodriquez’s first trip to America and he is furious at how the journey has gone. Thirty-year-old Énreque Landeros Garcia is from San Pedro and is walking to provide more for his wife and son; they did not want him to go. He did not have money for the trip, so Don Moi and Chespiro arranged a loan for him, payable once he has employment.

Reyno Bartolo Hernandez, also from San Pedro, is a thirty-seven-year-old coffee farmer who has been married for nineteen years. Don Moi’s organization loaned him eighteen hundred dollars.

Lorenzo Ortiz Hernando has a wife and five children, and they are hoping to have...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Broken Promise

That Sunday night, Mendez believes they will all die, and even the “stupidest among them” does not believe Mendez knows where they are or where they are going.

On Monday morning, May 21, Mendez awakes with no hope. What happens next depends on who tells the story. Mendez later tells different stories, the survivors each tell a slightly different story, the lawyer tells his version of the story, and La Migra tells another.

For whichever reason, cowardice or altruism, Mendez and Lauro leave the group to find water and take money (that was either requested, collected, or stolen, depending on who tells the story). “Nobody . . . can agree on how much, or how it...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The Trees and the Sun

After Mendez leaves the walkers to die, the men start walking on their own. At one point they see a Migra truck on patrol, but they are unable to run fast or far enough to reach it.

The heat is unbearable, a “hurricane of sunlight,” and when the men find a few scraggly mesquites, they spread out to capture some of the meager shade. They grab onto the tree trunks to keep themselves in as much shade as possible. 

Later, the Border Patrol calculates it took the men twelve hours to walk ten miles. By nightfall Monday, about fifteen of the men have thorns in their feet, according to survivors’ accounts.

In a last effort before their reasoning...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Helicopters

Mendez and Lauro keep walking, although Lauro is sick. Mendez keeps telling him they are almost there; in desert terms, they are. Since they left the pollos behind, the guias have walked forty miles, a nearly impossible feat in their condition. Even being arrested by the Migra is an appealing thought to them now.

Lauro finally drops. Mendez drops to his knees next to him and attempts to revive him but is not successful, so he takes the money from Lauro’s pocket and tries to get up so he can leave. He cannot do it. Eventually Mendez crawls under a little bush to rest for a bit and falls asleep.

Somehow Wednesday arrives, and the five remaining walkers stumble toward...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

The Aftermath

Billions are spent trying to stop illegals at the border; it is too expensive for illegals to return to Mexico, so only thirty percent return after two years.

The Border Patrol, in accordance with a “long-standing federal plan,” tries to leave the survivors at the Yuma hospital without arresting them. If the illegals are brought in for “life-saving purposes,” the hospital must pay the bill; if they are arrested first, the United States government must bear the expenses.

The survivors of the Wellton 26 lay in hospital beds within hours of being rescued. Nine are in fair condition, two are in serious condition, and one is critical. All together, it is an...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Home

The survivors are called heroes. Getting the corpses ready to be transferred to Mexico costs more than twenty-five thousand dollars; Vargas flies home with them and they are celebrated as martyred heroes.

America is blamed for the tragedy. The flight cost sixty-eight thousand dollars; Vargas wonders what might have happened if that money had been invested in these villages to begin with.

Mendez is in a Phoenix jail but still refuses to talk; he knows he is as dead as those already in the morgue (the Yuma 14) but refuses to name any names. His public defender has difficulty building a defense. When he hears about the bonfire, he claims that a “vast borderland conspiracy”...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Lori Steinbach, Ed. Scott Locklear