The Devil's Highway, a desolate place along the Mexican-Arizona border, witnessed the tragic death of fourteen Mexican immigrants, part of a party of twenty-four souls, in 2001. Aside from being a tragic and compelling event in its own right, this incident is used by Urrea to highlight the horrific, dehumanizing conditions faced by immigrants in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
One quote which encapsulates the overall message of this book is the following, found at the end of Chapter One:
In the strange military poetics of the Border Patrol, the big kill itself is known not only as the Case of the Yuma 14. It is officially called "Operation Broken Promise." Of all the catch phrases of the event, this is perhaps the most accurate (35).
This phrase is significant because the fourteen men who died (and indeed the twelve who survived) were betrayed in almost every way imaginable. Their homeland, rife with corruption, provided them with so few opportunities that they were willing to risk life and limb to find better circumstances. They are exploited by the Cercas crime family, which profits from their desperation. They feel betrayed by God, who allows many of them to die such a horrific death in the desert. Finally, the promise of a better life in the United States is also, for many migrants, a lie, and as we see early in the book, it is in fact the economic relations between the United States and Mexico that contributed to the migrant disaster in the first place. So the story of the Yuma 14 is, as this quote illustrates, a tale of broken promises.
Luis Alberto Urrea's book The Devil's Highway is a biographical account of 26 Mexicans crossing the US border Quitobaquito in Arizona and traversing "The Devil's Highway." The book is actually told as a flashback, with chapter 1, "The Rules of the Game," ending their journey. Five men approached a border patrol car and told the agents more men were behind them, both alive and dead. Signcutters, which are professional trackers, tracked the men's footprints and found 12 more men alive and 14 dead.
One purpose of the first chapter is to set the scene by informing the reader of what a harsh environment the region is. One way in which Urrea accomplishes this is by relaying all of the death that has occurred in the region over the centuries and by giving accounts of all of the stories of hauntings and demonic activity. Hence, any important passages in this chapter will help the author set the stage. One might consider the account of the haunting of the white woman, written down in 1699, as important:
In the lands of O'Odham, a white woman bearing a cross came drifting dow the Devil's Highway itself. The warriors who saw her immediately did the only practical thing they could: they filled her with arrows. They said she refused to die. Kept on flying. (p. 11)