The Devil's Highway

by Luis Alberto Urrea

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Who or what caused the death of the Yuma 14 in The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea?

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The Yuma 14 died from exposure to the dangerous desert environment in Arizona. However, Luis Alberto shows that the governments of Mexico and America, as well as the human smuggler who ferried them across the border, are responsible for the people ending up in that situation.

The Yuma 14 were...

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abandoned on the Devil's Highway in Arizona with instructions to walk in a certain direction to reach a road. They were told that the coyote would return with water. Though they believed it would only take a few hours to walk to a safer area, they actually had to cross more than 50 miles of desert. Heat, dehydration, and exposure all took their toll on the men as they attempted to reach their destination. The survivors had to be treated for a variety of health problems, some of which will persist for the rest of their lives.

The difficulty of immigrating from Mexico to America is one thing that drove the men in their desperate attempt to find a better life in the United States. The economy and environment in Mexico was bad enough that they believed they had a better chance at being safe and successful if they crossed the border to America. The immigration system made it too difficult for them to realistically come to America in a legal way, so they tried their luck with the human smugglers—coyotes. Coyotes work like a gang to make a profit and are more focused on money than on preserving and safeguarding the people who pay them. All of these factors led the men to the desert where they would ultimately die.

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The responsibility for the deaths of the Yuma 14 is a major theme of The Devil's Highway, which chronicles the journey of a group of Mexican men entering the United States illegally in the summer of 2001. The question is straightforward but the answer is elusive. Luis Alberto Urrea pins the blame on various forces, including the poor economy in Veracruz, Mexico—the place most of the men called home. The author suggests that the United States government has both a limited and jaded view of the illegal immigration problems on the Mexican border and doesn't give the Border Patrol the resources necessary to either stem the tide or help immigrants.

The amoral coyote named Mendez, who led the Yuma 14 to their deaths, is the obvious villain, but the book suggests he is a pawn in a larger profit-driven scheme. Mendez himself comes from a poor background and his life is not unlike those of the men he leads. Mendez is profiled as an ambitious and unfeeling person, and he was prosecuted for the crime of abandoning the border crossers, but he is too easy a culprit in their deaths. His boss, and his bosses boss, who profit from the desperate poverty of men who cross the border for a better life, are also off the hook. They are profiteers, but the system that makes it possible to exploit the poor is a result of economic forces that create huge economic rifts between Mexico and the US.

Ultimately, Urrea suggests that both the US and Mexican governments have unrealistic immigration policies and punishing economic systems. Although these two governments are to blame for the problem of illegal immigration, the author doesn't have any easy answers as to why so many men died on that fateful May afternoon, when the temperature climbed toward 100 degrees on the Devil's Highway.

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Luis Alberto Urrea's book The Devil's Highway is a true account which chronicles the stories of the border crossings by the group which is now known as the Yuma 14. Twenty-six Mexican men and their guides left Mexico for the United States; fourteen of them died.

The question of blame is a complicated one, full of many "ifs," but the blame must start in Mexico. If things were better for the people there, they would not be willing to take such great risks to improve their lives. Most of the men, known as the Wellstone 26, were only planning to go work in America for a specific time and purpose, knowing it was the quickest way for them to improve their homes, their children's educations, and their futures. “Even the gringo trash [in America] is better than anything else they can buy.” Mexico does not work as hard as it could to keep its citizens from trying to cross the border.

The guides (called coyotes) responsible for leading the men across the border and safely to their new lives in America are also to blame. They were careless, irresponsible, and inexperienced. These three things led directly to the deaths, and one of the guides dies, as well. If these men were not motivated by money, things might have been different. Mendez, the surviving coyote, had been arrested seven times before, but clearly he was undeterred by this.

The men, too, have to take some responsibility for their deaths. They trusted too much and continued their plan even when things began to fall apart, which they did even before they left Mexico. Their dreams and desperation for something better are commendable; if they had not allowed those two things to override their innate sense that things were not right, they might not have begun the journey.

In the end, the United States must take the blame because the deaths happened here. Humanitarian organizations have begun leaving water at strategic points (known to be pick-up points for border-crossers) and the border patrol is now broadcasting helpful messages over radio towers in an attempt to avoid loss of life. Despite these efforts, the consensus, according to Urrea, is that nothing much has changed.

Border issues are complex, as evidenced by the country's inability to   find workable and acceptable solutions to the problems. The blame for the deaths of the Yuma 14 is equally complex.

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