Journalist Luis Alberto Urrea wrote The Devil's Highway in an attempt to draw attention to the problems on both sides of the border between the United States and Mexico. To make the story more meaningful, Urrea takes the true account of twenty-six border crossers and gives them names and faces, families and dreams, so his readers can no longer think of those who try to come to America as non-entities. In doing this, Urrea is also able to identify the problems on both sides of the border which must be addressed in order to solve the problem of needless deaths at the border.
The setting in America is an area in Arizona known as the Devil's Highway, a place with a long history of death and destruction as part of a migratory path for many different cultures and people groups. This story is set in May of 2001, when the group known as the Wellstone 26 become twelve survivors and the Yuma 14, those who do not survive. The desert setting is harsh and cruel; between the heat and the terrain, it is not surprising that it is named for Satan.
Nothing soft here. This world of spikes and crags was as alien to them [the Mexican crossers] as if they'd suddenly awakened on Mars. They had seen cowboys cut open cacti to find water in the movies, but they didn't know what cactus among the many before them might hold some hope. Men tore their faces open chewing saguaros and prickly pears, leaving gutted plants that looked like animals had torn them apart with their claws. The green here was gray.
This is a dusty, deadly, dangerous place--and that is even without the heat. Coyotes (paid guides for groups of crossers) who do not know this place well will not be able to maneuver it, and that is what happened here. There is no water on the American side because that might encourage people to attempt a crossing, so those who do make the trip must survive without it or get picked up quickly.
The second setting of this book is a little more complicated to describe, because Urrea takes us to the various homes of each of the hopeful Mexican men who will comprise the Wellstone 26. Wherever they live, they need--not just want--more for their families and their lives, and their own country cannot or will not provide them with opportunities to get those things, like education and adequate houses. That is why they leave, and they have every intention of coming back because that is where their families are.
What I can describe is the conditions on Sonoita, the men's last stop in Mexico before they pile into a bus and cross the border. People are crammed into filthy, overcrowded, outrageously expensive hovels without any food. Everyone in town is aware of these conditions and regularly profits from it, which makes them complicit in this crime against humanity.
The book describes the Border Patrol in the United States, and many of them are portrayed as caring individuals who have a job to do. It is the government which is primarily at fault, according to Urrea. The Coyotes are hated by authorities in both countries:
But the two things that most unify the two sides are each one's deep distrust of its own government, and each side's simmering hatred for the human smugglers, the gangsters who call themselves Coyotes.
It is the arrogance and selfishness of these guides which is mostly responsible for these fourteen deaths.
The deaths the Yuma 14 suffer are horrific (see chapter nine), most caused directly or indirectly by the heat, and they could all have been prevented.