In The Devil’s Highway, Urrea tells a true story about Mexican immigrants wrapped in a complex system of betrayal. At the beginning of the story in “Rules of the Game” Urrea describes five men stumbling out of the mountain pass who escape a long series of mishaps, lies, and exploitation. The fourteen walkers who died in the desert suffered a very painful death. The entire group (dead and alive) were the victims of betrayal—by their guides, by their country, and by their country of destination.

Mexican immigrants crossing into the United States is not a new phenomenon; however, Urrea offers evidence that the enterprise has changed dramatically with the introduction of gangs and gang families. Individual guides may have escorted walkers across the borders in the past with little or no success. Today's gang families, such as the Cercas, represent a sophisticated operation that is more “corporate” and removed from the lives of those they are guiding.

The guides are young, uneducated, and desperate to earn money, respect, and status. The nature of their work is exceedingly dangerous with physical danger and the dangers of incarceration. If the Border Patrol is visible, guides do not think twice about leaving their walkers behind. They assume no responsibility for their welfare and are only concerned with getting them from point A to point B.

When the group is left without Mendez at the end, each one of the men curses him, curses God, and longs for home. The godforsaken desert has taken everything—and the land of promises in the United States has betrayed them. Their own country betrayed them from the beginning—by not offering any means or method of sustaining a livelihood.

Desert and Desolation
The bleak and hot desert is described as a central theme in the book. The intense heat and sun in the desert causes horrific physical afflictions: swollen and cracked lips, black urine, organs that “cook” inside bodies. Urrea describes the heat as sizzling “at the edges of things.” When the sun came over the Growler mountains, it collected light and dropped it like lava on the walkers. All life forms—rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions—retreat from the sun's relentless glare.

The sun burns the scalp along a part or fills in bald spots. Cheeks, necks, ear tips, and eyelids burn, too. The ground burns feet because it carries a temperature of about 120 degrees. Urrea describes the desert as thirsty because it sucks up a person’s sweat so quickly that a person doesn’t even know he is sweating. The air of a person’s breath dries out everything: throat, mouth, sinuses, nose. Spit becomes a thick paste. The fluid in lungs dries up and causes heavier breathing. The desert’s heat takes all life.

Urrea also describes the psychological effects. The desolation of the area contributes to the madness of the walkers and guides. The wide open space only spells out death. They drag their feet up on a slog and then get lost on the slope. They try again only to be foiled by the heat. Bright lights are blinding, and their source is unknown: Sunlight? Headlights? Reflections? The desert is deceptive. Just as they think they are reaching the last peak or ridge, they see another one.

They are staggering and...

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