(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

A journalistic narrative about twenty-six Mexicans who tried to cross the southern Arizona desert into the United States, The Devil's Highway is a compelling tale of greed, simplicity, and the physiology of extreme environments. Equally significant, Luis Urrea's book describes the social institutions that clash along the border: They include the “Migra,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), on one hand and the human smugglers, called coyote gangs, on the other. As if this were not enough for a short book to cover, The Devil's Highway places the Wellton 26 (named for the nearby Wellton CBP station in Arizona) in historical context as unfortunates who were thrust into a desperate journey by the economic conditions of their homeland.

The devil's highway is a harsh desert region ringed in by Interstate 19 to the east, the Colorado River to the west, Interstate 8 to the north, and the U.S.-Mexico border to the south. The Devil's Highway begins with an overview of the region and the people whose job it is to patrol it. The devil's highway is a harsh place, where threats to life are many. The region's flora include cacti, prickly bushes, and mesquite trees with long thorns; the fauna include many varieties of poisonous insects and reptiles, as well as killer bees. The threats to life are human-made as well as natural. Those wandering in the region should know that the Barry Goldwater Air Force Base is nearby, and pilots use the region as a bombing range.

As far back as the 1850's, the region was described as “a vast graveyard of unknown dead …the scattered bones of human beings slowly turning to dust.” Travelers may see clumps of dried ironwood trees that have been dead more than five hundred years, “a forest of eldritch bones.” They may come across rows of decommissioned U.S. Army tanks and Air Force jets slowly decaying in the desert sun. As the name suggests, many consider the devil's highway so harsh and implacable that only the supernatural can explain it; the cruelty of the devil is the only possible reason for so harsh a land.

Those who live and work nearby become harsh as well. The American Indian tribes in the area had a terrible reputation among Mexicans for predatory violence. At the time the book was written, the CBP had inherited that reputation. Although the illegal immigrants flee to them when they are in trouble and out of water, the CBP are considered abusers, murderers, and rapists.

As Urrea describes them, however, the CBP are much more complex. Although their jokes and dialog are often harsh and violent, the men themselves are remarkably sympathetic. The CBP agents describe themselves as beat cops of the desert; they are remarkable not simply because they located and rescued many of the survivors of the Wellton 26 but because they locate and rescue walkers every day. The scale of their workload can be appreciated by Urrea's claim that Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, near Tucson, Arizona, has been traversed by approximately 200,000 illegal immigrants per year.

Included in the 200,000 or so are Mexicans and Central Americans who are simply looking for work or a better life; and there are many others, whom the border patrol agents call OTMs (“Other than Mexicans”). These include narcotics smugglers, cactus thieves, and other criminals. They are also Chinese and Russian illegal immigrants, confused Arabs, and Edward Abbey imitators who trespass on the Marine and Air Force bases nearby. Abbey was an iconoclastic American writer who advocated sabotage and civil disobedience to protect the environment; he loved the desert and was buried among the nameless dead in the devil's highway.

Although the CBP affects to despise the criminals and mock the illegal immigrants, their hatred is reserved for the coyote gangs they struggle against. The coyotes are the human smugglers who, Charon-like, ferry illegal immigrants through the vast graveyard of the Arizona desert. All too often, the coyotes mislead peasants into thinking the crossing will be easy, bilk them into parting with thousands of pesos, and abandon them in the middle of the desert. Unfortunately for the Wellton 26, this is precisely what happened.

None of the Wellton 26 wanted to stay in the United States forever; instead, each wanted simply to earn enough money to pay for various domestic...

(The entire section is 1781 words.)


The Devil’s Highway recounts the May 2001 journey of twenty-six Mexican immigrants into the United States through the Arizona border. The desert, mountains, towns, and climate of the southwestern United States (and northern Mexico) is central to the story. The map that Urrea provides in the book is a peripatetic guide for the setting; the reader can follow the map to understand the group as a whole and individual walkers as they meet their fates.

When the book begins, the reader immediately senses the desperation, confusion, and utter helplessness of five men who stumble out of a mountain pass near Interstate 8 in Arizona. These men have just emerged from the intense desert sun and heat. They are burned black and their lips are cracking and huge. Dust has settled into their eyes. Their dehydration has shriveled organs inside of their bodies. The entire scene conjures a hallucinatory effect. Urrea describes the walkers’ uncertain eyesight, sights of God or the devil, poisonous systems from ingesting their own urine, and utter madness.

Urrea uses the geography of the area to dizzying effect. As this group of immigrants make it through the Granite Mountains of southern Arizona, they have no idea where they are. They stumble through the canyons toward Yuma, but they do not know if they are heading in that direction. They end up at the south end of the U.S. Air Force’s Barry Goldwater bombing range. It is as if every evil has come together in this one spot.

This region has been called the Devil’s Highway as far back as 1850 when a westerner named Francisco Salazar wrote the Devil’s Highway was “a vast graveyard of the unknown dead....the scattered bones of human beings slowly turning to dust.”

Urrea provides a setting that is steeped in history—and still feels the effects of its ghosts in the twenty-first century. The first white man died in this desert in 1541. Many white men came after (the Spaniards nd missionaries) and died in this treacherous and noxious place. Cannibalism and other outrageous horrors have bled into the very ground of this desert. Poison from snakes, spiked saguaros, toxic plants, and alien scorpions and tarantulas dot the region and add to the horror.

In the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge area the desert becomes the “evil” desert. In their madness, the five stumbling men curse everything here: the Mexican government, the U.S....

(The entire section is 993 words.)