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The Devil's Highway: A True Story

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The author of Across the Wire offers brilliant investigative reporting of what went wrong when, in May 2001, a group of 26 men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona. Only 12 men came back out.

239 pages, Paperback

First published April 2, 2004

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About the author

Luis Alberto Urrea

52 books2,103 followers
Luis Alberto Urrea is the award-winning author of 13 books, including The Hummingbird's Daughter, The Devil's Highway and Into the Beautiful North (May 2009). Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, Luis has used the theme of borders, immigration and search for love and belonging throughout his work. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 (nonfiction), he's won the Kiriyama Prize (2006), the Lannan Award (2002), an American Book Award (1999) and was named to the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. He is a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and lives with his family in the 'burbs (dreaming of returning West soon!).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,017 reviews
Profile Image for brian   .
248 reviews2,946 followers
February 5, 2008
of all the books i've read on the subject, this is the best. the story itself is harrowing, of course, and urrea is one hell of a writer. rather than tell a linear story of the 26 mexicans who walked across the devil's highway (only 12 lived to tell the tale), he offers a kaleidoscopic view of the whole machine: border patrol, mexican gangsters, coyotes, arizona, texas, vera cruz, the rio grande, sonora, and the eyeball-drying life-taking sweat-sucking scorching terrible terrible terrible dantean devil's highway itself: the most quiet, serene, and, yes, hostile place on the planet. i read this in a single night and went to sleep feeling like shit, both physically and spiritually. ugh. a vile and fantastic book.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
February 17, 2020
”Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn’t know their own names, couldn’t remember where they’d come from, had forgotten how long they’d been lost. One of them wandered back up a peak. One of them was barefoot. They were burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking, what paltry drool still available to them spuming from their mouths in a salty foam as they walked. Their eyes were cloudy with dust, almost too dry to blink up a tear. Their hair was hard and stiffened by old sweat, standing in crowns from their scalps, old because their bodies were no longer sweating. They were drunk from having their brains baked in the pan, they were seeing God and Devils, and they were dizzy from drinking their own urine, the poisons clogging their systems.”

In May 2001, twenty-six men crossed the border illegally and entered the corridor of unforgiving desert called The Devil’s Highway. Like with most catastrophic events, it required a series of things to go wrong for something as horrific as this to occur.

Twenty-six men entered.
Twelve men emerged.

Luis Alberto Urrea is going to tell you how it all happened, but he is also going to educate you beyond just the facts of this story because the story is larger than just one tragic event. The story is about desperation, heroic efforts, and a lack of understanding by most people who live beyond five miles of the border.

“Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, a tireless crusader for border reforms and more humane treatment of the undocumented: ‘There should be no such thing as an illegal person on this planet.’”

It begins with why a person from Mexico or Central America or any number of economically depressed countries wants to come to the United States. Usually we can begin with failed economic policies by the country of origin. If there are opportunities where they live, even the shining beacon of America would not tempt most of these people to leave the ones they love to seek a better life elsewhere. They are desperate enough to risk their lives in the hands of coyotes, many of whom are inexperienced boys controlled by criminals.

We, too, have had our share of economic downturns in America. I think about the jobs in Detroit and Cleveland that were shipped overseas, leaving devastated families and communities in their wake. We allow those companies to do that. Those companies find cheaper labor, make more profits, park money offshore to avoid taxes, and still are allowed to sell their products to the very American communities they abandoned. It’s called capitalism and a free market economy, but unfortunately, those heady words associated with freedom only benefit a very small percentage of people. Regrettably, American corporations forget or never knew something that Henry Ford discovered over a hundred years ago: If you give workers security and a living wage, they have more money to buy your product. It becomes a beautiful cycle, involving less profit for the corporation but keeping America’s economy strong from the ground up. So I could lecture Mexico and others of our southern neighbors about many failed policies involving greed, mismanagement, and corruption that have contributed to the immigration issues, but we have plenty of that right here in the good old U. S. of A.

What was most impressive to me about this book is the evenhanded way in which Urrea tells this story. He isn’t here to paint a story of abuse and disrespect perpetrated upon immigrants by border security. He does discuss those incidents, but he also talks about the many people who do their best to save lives and treat people with compassion. One story that really resonated with me was that railroad crews have learned to carry cases of bottled water with them so they can drop water at the feet of those human beings who stagger from the wasteland closer to death than life. The quick responses by the Border Patrol are also very impressive. They aren’t there just to enforce the law, but to save lives. There are abuses. Unfortunately, not all the people attracted to law enforcement jobs are there for the right reasons. Those types of officers call illegal aliens tonks.

It's the sound that a flashlight makes on the back of a person’s skull.

Urrea also shares some math that might be of interest to most people. My conservative friends and family are always railing about all the social services that illegal aliens are using while they are in the United States. They are, according to these FOX informed people, taking advantage of our system and costing taxpayers millions or, depending on the hyperbolic capabilities of the person,...billions. Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, conducted a study. ”Mexican immigrants paid nearly $600 million in federal taxes and sales taxes in 2002...Mexican immigrants used about $250 million in social services such as Medicaid and food stamps...Another $31 million in uncompensated health care…
That leaves a profit of $319 million.”

Holy shit! Open the frilling border! Obscene profits are the life blood of capitalism, and that is a profit margin that would make even a one percenter’s eyes widen. Talk about a bonanza to be made off of our southern brethren. Not to mention all the goods and services they purchase that contribute to our economy as well. These figures would tell me that stifling illegal aliens is actually stifling our economy.

Of course, nothing is as simple as all that, but still the story is larger and more complicated than what most Americans are being brainwashed into believing.

My father, who is now 80 years old, watches nothing, but FOX NEWS, and he asked me one day...so whatever happened to that caravan? *sigh*

This is the beginning of my reading quest that is in response to the controversy surrounding the seven figure advance given to a white woman for her immigration novel. For the real scoop on that book please read David Bowles’s review. Click to go to the American Dirt Review At the end of David’s review, he provides a list of alternative reading choices that will give you a much more realistic view of the border situation than what was presented in American Dirt.

”In the desert, we are all illegal aliens.”

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,302 reviews119 followers
March 21, 2020
Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction Shortlist 2005. Urrea masterfully brings to life the lives of 26 men and boys who attempted to enter the United States by walking across the treacherous southern Arizona desert, called the Devil’s Highway, in May of 2001. He follows these men from their recruitment by Mexican gangsters, to the border area where three guides took over, and finally their horrific trek under the 115 degree sun in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Fourteen of them died. At last, the remaining few were able to signal the Border Patrol (BP) as to their location. The BP were able to rescue the living and recover the dead with the help of five helicopters. All of them suffered from kidney damage.

Urrea’s extensive research casts light on the company practice of working with the gangsters to attract low-cost labor for their U.S. businesses, and the complicity of both the U.S. and Mexican governments in fostering illegal border crossings through confusing policies. Hopefully, this aspect has been corrected.

However, what will stay with me the most were Urrea’s descriptions of what happens to the body step-by-agonizing step as it becomes hyperthermic. And it made me think of the deaths of pets and children left in cars while the hot sun bears down on them. So sad!

Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Kent.
50 reviews
October 12, 2012
I was working with the Border Patrol at the time of this story. It is a very effective presentation of how people are smuggled across the Arizona border from Mexico. It is also effective at showing how to die in the desert. You will feel empathy for the migrants. You will see the day to day life of the Border Patrol. They are not who they are often presented as. With this you will identify how dysfunctional policy is with regard to the Southwest Border... I'm a fan of sealed borders and liberal immigration as the only real solution. Regardless as to your perspective, it is an education.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,699 reviews1,478 followers
April 3, 2020
I read this book to learn more about the Mexican American border situation. Who are the "crossers" and whom must they deal with? I learned a lot. It presents all parts in a balanced and fair manner. I recommend the book very highly.

The author reads his own book. This he has done very well too.
Profile Image for D. Pow.
56 reviews244 followers
August 14, 2009
This a great book, one of the best I’ve read this year. It hits you in the head, makes you think hard about the events conveyed between its pages, but it packs an even harder emotional wallop. I felt such sadness and fierce heartache for the 26 men who stumbled into the Devil’s Highway and the brutal loss of the 14 who didn’t make it and the tortuous way they stumbled, for hour on endless hour, into the ultimately merciful embrace of death.

Urrea has a poet’s gift for language, alternating long, lyrical passages with short, abrupt declarative sentences that are brutal as a slap in the face. He has the sociologist’s gift for conveying the complex nature of the mangy beast that is US/Mexican border relations, he has even a fine enough sensitivity to note that the poor workers who came to the US dreaming of quick cash and real work were marginalized and disenfranchised before they even crossed the border. He also has considerable novelistic gifts, he can paint a scene, move action from place to place and recall dialogue masterfully.

It would be easy to relate these events and come up with some liberal jeremiad that shouted out for justice for these poor, sad son of a bitches that attempt this crossing. And he does that, he screams to the top of his lungs to offer these guys some lasting relevance and resonance, to get inside their sun-baked skulls as they fell into the Valley of Muerte. But he also shows a non-judgmental for the Coyotes, immigration workers and others that fill this sad tale. They run the gamut from wholly sympathetic, to ones capable of arousing our begrudging admiration, to villainous money-grubbing traffickers who don’t shed a tear over any human bones left in the Arizona desert.

There is so much here. The colorful characters. The fateful chain of mistakes made by the hapless coyotes. The relentless, heroic trudging through the vast, inhuman, sinister and hallucinatory desert. A work of near genius, uncompromising, poetic, idiosyncratic and imminently worth reading.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,422 reviews538 followers
February 8, 2020
A gut-wrenching, fierce book centering around 26 men who tried to cross the US-Mexican border through the desert. Urrea writes about their arduous journey in shattering detail as well as providing an even-handed portrayal of several Border Patrol agents and a discussion of the bigger picture of illegal immigration.

(On my list of authentic books to read as an alternative to, or alongside American Dirt)
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,898 followers
February 7, 2020
This is as good as it gets if you want a short but comprehensive examination of the issues surrounding our porous border with Mexico. All viewpoints are represented, and with surprisingly little bias on the part of the author. As a Mexican American, Urrea admits to an initial bias against the Border Patrol, or "Pinche Migra." His investigation changed his mind, and he presents them in a favorable light.

Urrea uses one well-publicized 2001 tragedy to illustrate the complexities and absurdities of illegal border crossings and their consequences. He follows a group of 26 Mexican men from hopeful start to brutal finish as they made their way through the process of illegal entry into the U.S. He begins with each man as an individual -- deciding to come to America, collecting the money to pay the smugglers (Coyotes), and traveling to the meeting place.
From then on we witness their collective ordeal in the desert corridor known as The Devil's Highway. The personal touch is effective here, so we see each man with a name, a family, a history, and a specific dream or purpose for coming to America.

Fourteen of the men died, and the other twelve came close to death, surviving only due to the quick rescue from the Border Patrol once they were discovered. Sadly, their story is not unique. It's only one well-documented example of the hundreds of Mexican people who die in that desert every year after having been lied to and then abandoned by the Coyotes. Some of them who cannot pay a lot of money are even transported in car trunks or tied to engine blocks, and then die from the heat.

Urrea's description of the physiological breakdown of the human body in that harsh desert with no water is especially distressing. The journey of the men through the six stages of "heat death" will make you understand why the men who work for the Border Patrol have paid out of their own pockets to erect $6,000 lifesaving towers. Walkers in trouble can press a red button and the Border Patrol will arrive within one hour to rescue them. And so the bad guys, the "Pinche Migra" so greatly feared by illegal entrants, sometimes turn out to be the saviors.

This is not a book about presenting solutions, but about making people aware of the difficulties extending so far beyond immigration policy. In the Aftermath section, Urrea addresses the political, financial, and humanitarian aspects of the problem, with all sides fairly represented. He especially highlights the absurdity of the money spent on rescue efforts, medical care, and body recovery -- money that could be much better spent to improve life in Mexican villages.

To his credit, the author doesn't claim to have answers, but he provides a compelling understanding of the problem, which is a good place to start.
Profile Image for Lorna.
653 reviews352 followers
April 8, 2022
The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea was a disturbing non-fiction account of an unforgiving corridor along the Mexico-United States border known as "The Devil's Highway." The author did extensive research and was granted access to documents and governmental reports from both Mexico and the United States including border patrol reports, sheriff's departmental reports, Mexican consular reports, Justice Department reports, testimonies and trial documents, correspondence and hours of taped interrogations and confessions. At the heart of this criminal case were the circumstances leading up to twenty-six men and teen-aged boys, all from Mexico, being told by the smugglers that they would just have to walk a few hours before they would reach a highway. However, it was more than 50 miles of desert that would have to be crossed. Complicating their plight was the fact that they lacked water and the knowledge how to survive the 115-degree weather along "The Devil's Highway." Only twelve people survived with fourteen dead from exposure. They were found by the Border Patrol just east of Yuma and close to death suffering from exposure and dehydration. Urrea's account of what happened ensues in a fair and unbiased way, while presenting the facts in an historical context adding to one's understanding. It is an important book to read.

"Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature have always traveled these trails. From the beginning, the highway has always lacked grace--those who worship desert gods know them to favor retribution over the tender dove of forgiveness."

"A westerner named Francisco Salazar seems to have been the first to keep an eyewitness record of this phase of the killing fields. By 1850, he wrote, the Devil's Highway was ". . . a vast graveyard of unknown dead. . . the scattered bones of human beings slowly turning to dust. . . the dead were left where they were to be sepulchered by the fearful sandstorms that sweep at times over the desolate waste."
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
604 reviews330 followers
July 2, 2020
5 🚷 🚷 🚷 🚷 🚷
I read this after it was recommended in a review for nonfiction reading about immigrants and illegal entry into the US via our southern border with Mexico. It was suggested as an alternative to the popular and controversial American Dirt. My copy of that one has yet to make it into my hands so I can’t compare the two, even so, fiction is its own category and if it draws one to books like this I’m tempted to say it’s a win-win.

I live in rural California where almost daily you drive in air conditioned comfort with a mocha frappuccino nestled in the cup holder, passing workers bent at the waste tending crops, picking strawberries, and making sure the fruit of the vine makes it safely to my wine glass.
During our catastrophic fires it was reported they were still out there doing backbreaking labor, yet not given masks to protect them from particulate matter swirling in the smoke saturated air while the rest of us were warned of the respiratory dangers and directed to free mask handout stations. I know of no one here who questions the legality of what these laborers are doing—no one else wants their jobs. I am grateful for their hard work, green card or no.

I chose the audio version read by the author and it was so well done, voicing full dynamic range and emotion. From the very first paragraph until the ending one, it delivers gripping, gut-wrenching, eyeopening, page turning, heartbreak reporting, providing the reader an eyes wide open view of the scope and history of this issue, as well as the tragedy that befell one particular group of walkers—so much packed into 275 pages.
No mystery why this was a Pulitzer Prize nominee for nonfiction in 2005. In these border contentious times I would have appreciated an afterward by the author.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,415 reviews7,430 followers
October 7, 2022
If we’re reading friends you probably think I bumped my head because all I ever want to pick up is TRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASH and here I am reading something potentially smart. If you think I’m joking I’ll show you my library holds and how I keep pushing all the nonfictions back to November when I might feel a little bit of an obligation to participate and read them. In all honesty I probably would have never even added this one to the TBR as it was released over 10 years ago and I still had never heard of it despite it’s second printing. And despite being an oldster I was not familiar with the true story this covers either. But then the company I work for offered up a free copy and an opportunity to participate in a global book club via Zoom for National Hispanic Heritage Month and I was all in. (FYI – the book club was 10 out of 10 and I would highly recommend. It was nice to (1) actually see some diversity in a company that touts how diverse it is while I’m surrounded by fat old white men every single day of my life and (2) hear from those people about their perspective and personal experiences as children of immigrants.)

This place is to review the book, however. The good news is it was interesting. The bad news is the delivery was pretty clinical for me. The nonfiction I respond to best are the ones that read like fiction. Dopesick, Evicted, Nomadland, etc. all took difficult subject matter and tackled them via people and their stories. Interviews, the authors imbedding themselves, etc., it was impossible not to feel all of the things. I found The Devi’s Highway to be a much more sterile presentation – a sort of “just the facts, ma’am” type of storytelling that appeared to rely heavily on researching others’ research rather than actual conversations with any of the people involved. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. I read it in a day and it’s impossible not to have an emotional response to the slow deaths these men were dealing with – including even the coyote who, while a criminal who capitalized on desperation, was pretty much just a desperate child himself. Bottom line is I could have used a hundred or so more pages to get to know each of the men a little better (both a deeper look rather than just a snippet into their homes and reasons for crossing the border to begin with and more of a follow up than the tiny snippet provided regarding the survivors). It’s bad enough that the people who really need to read books like these will always be the last to ever pick them up – but nothing will change if we aren’t capable of seeing the complexities of the human element involved.

3.5 Stars
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews504 followers
June 12, 2017
We all know that in our current political climate, there are very strong feelings by people on every side when it comes to the issue of immigration and refugees. There has long been talk about a wall being built between the United States and Mexico, to prevent people from crossing the border and, y'know, "taking our jobs" or whatever. I'm not interested in having a political debate with anyone about this topic, but a wall is fucking stupid.

In any case.

In 2001, 26 men attempted to cross the border from Mexico into Southern Arizona which is, if you look at a map, ALL DESERT. They paid money to be guided through this part of the desert which is known as the Devil's Highway. Of the 26 men who went in, only 12 survived.

Luis Alberto Urrea did a decent job getting into the minds of the people on every side of this issue, from the ones taking the money from those who wished to make the journey, to the journeymen themselves, to the Border Patrol workers who fear the Devil's Highway for knowing just how deadly and unforgiving a terrain it can be.

As a white woman living in the US 16 years after these events, I find it heartbreaking that people have to go to such great lengths to go somewhere in order to make a better life for themselves and their family. I come from a very privileged background and cannot imagine, and so because of this privilege comes a lot of idealism about how things should never have to be this complicated for anyone. The sad thing is, of course, that while this particular event took place in 2001, it's not an entirely isolated situation. People die all of the time trying to cross borders, whether they are North American or not, and it always seems to be senseless AF.

In this particular case, I'm frustrated because all of the events these men encountered could have been avoided. The men who chose to be guided were misinformed and therefore were not prepared to spend any significant amount of time in a desert setting - many of the deaths could have been prevented had they been properly informed on the right clothes to wear, the right provisions to bring, the right expectation of how long the journey would take, instead of just being told that they were "almost there".

I was able to read this book in one day. It's a quick read, even though it's not always an easy read as Urrea wanted to humanize each of the different men who made the trek to the best of his ability. This is, sadly, still a timely topic (more so, actually, in some ways) than when it was originally published. I don't know if reading this book would change anyone's feelings about immigration, but I think it's worth reading and understanding all of the facts.
Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
535 reviews63 followers
October 12, 2022
The “Devil’s Highway,” originally, was a U.S. federal highway in Arizona - one that bore the unfortunate designation of U.S. 666. That name, with its associations with the “number of the beast” that is said to describe the Antichrist in Revelation 13:18 (“Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six”), caused U.S. Highway 666 to have all sorts of weird occult associations until the highway was redesignated as U.S. 191 in 2003. Yet when Luis Alberto Urrea uses the phrase “devil’s highway,” he does so metaphorically – to describe the hellish desert borderland that undocumented immigrants often attempt to cross, in order to leave their Mexican homeland and begin a new life in the United States of America. Sometimes, making that voyage can be deadly, as Urrea chronicles in his 2004 book The Devil’s Highway.

Urrea, a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois – Chicago, conducted extensive (and dangerous-sounding) primary research in the border area in order to write this concise and powerful book that is subtitled simply A True Story. The true story that Urrea is relating here is that of an unfortunate group of undocumented immigrants who have become known to history simply as “The Wellton 26.” These 26 unfortunates were brought across the border in May of 2001 by “coyotes,” smugglers working for organized-crime figures along the border. The “coyotes” got lost and abandoned their charges in the desert; 14 of them died in the 115-degree heat, while 12 of them were rescued by U.S. Border Patrol agents operating out of a station in Wellton, Arizona.

The Devil’s Highway sets forth in hair-raising detail the background against which the tragic story of the Wellton 26 unfolded. Urrea emphasizes the odds against the undocumented immigrants. Organized-crime figures along the border, men with nicknames like “El Negro,” grow rich promising impoverished and desperate Mexicans in states like Veracruz an easy and safe trip across the border. In fact, what the top gangsters care about is flaunting their fine clothes and fancy cars and the company of beautiful women, and they could not care less about the immigrants, or about the ”coyotes” who are hired to take these refugees (known as “walkers”) across the border.

(Content Notice: Please note that some of the remaining quotes from this book contain harsh language and disturbing images.)

A Mexican Government sign at Sasabe, Sonora, on the Mexico side of the border, is used by Urrea as a symbol of the tragic situation that undocumented immigrants face. The sign warns that “For the Coyotes Your Needs Are Only a Business and They Don’t Care About Your Safety or the Safety of Your Family. Don’t Pay Them Off With Your Lives!” (p. 55). It is sound advice. But, as Urrea somberly adds, “The Sasabe sign, which many of the walkers can’t read, is the only thing Mexico is doing to try to stop them from crossing. The Mexican army patrols the borderlands, sort of, though nobody can find them, probably because the Coyotes pay the soldiers off. Coyote gangs have more money than the Mexico City sign painters” (p. 55).

Urrea traces the long process that brings the “walkers” from places like Veracruz to the border, where they pay the gangsters exorbitant amounts of money they can’t afford and then are handed over to smugglers or “coyotes.” There is considerable focus on one “coyote” – named “Mendez” for the book, as everyone goes by aliases – who is in charge of getting the walkers to a safe destination inside the U.S.A., but has no clear idea what he is doing, as becomes clear during Mendez’ futile efforts to lead the walkers toward the vital landmark of Bluebird Pass:

As they walked, they started to lose themselves. Their accounts of the following days fade into a strange twilight of pain. Names are forgotten. Locations are nebulous, at best, since none of them, not even the Coyotes, knew where they were. Nameless mountains loomed over them, nameless stars burned mutely overhead, nameless demons gibbered from the nameless canyons. (p. 108)

Mendez, it turns out, was basically leading his charges in circles; and eventually, he and his accomplice demanded money from the walkers and abandoned them, heading north with the dubious claim that they would come back with water. It is at this point that The Devil’s Highway becomes particularly grueling, with its description of the suffering of these men as they waited, under the pounding unbearable sun, for Mendez’s unlikely return:

The desert, out of focus and suddenly terribly sharp, burst white and yellow in their eyes. It tilted. Elongated. It was at an impossible angle! It tipped up toward the sun, and if they didn’t crawl, they would slide right off it and fall forever. It made noise: THERE WERE ENGINES BENEATH THE DESERT. It made evil grinding noises, mechanical humming. No, it was insectile, the screech of hunger and derision. The devils were under the rocks, spitting insults. THE BLACK HEAD LAUGHED. I believe in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth. No, it did not fucking laugh – it was as silent as a graveyard out there. Just the crunch and slide, crunch and slide, of endless, hopeless footsteps. Hundreds of footsteps. (p. 159)

A final chapter, titled “Home,” sums up what happened to a number of the principals in the Wellton 26 case – the coffins of the dead refugees being taken home to Mexico; the surviving refugees seeking to use what leverage they have in order to stay in the United States; Mendez confessing in hopes of staving off execution and minimizing his jail time; El Negro fleeing the border and defying the police forces of two nations to “Come and get me!” Urrea’s indignation at the continuing horrors of the border situation is palpable:

Since that May of 2001, the filth and depravity of the border churns ahead in a parade of horrors. The slaughtered dead turn to leather on the Devil’s Highway, and their brothers and sisters rot to sludge in car trunks and sealed in railroad cars. The big beasts and the little predators continue to feed on the poor and innocent. (p. 204)

And Urrea was writing more than a decade before the Trump presidential candidacy and the “Build the Wall!” chants, and the family separation policies and children in cages – none of which stopped or even slowed the northward movement of desperate migrants. More than two decades after the suffering and death among the Wellton 26, the Devil’s Highway remains a deadly path through a trackless wilderness – one that unfortunate people still travel at the risk of their lives.
Profile Image for Carmel Hanes.
Author 1 book127 followers
February 9, 2020

I listened to this following American Dirt, to have a comparison in the quest to "put a face on the faceless", which both authors had as a goal. This book gave me a much more complete view of the people who make these dangerous border crossings, and why.

Urrea focuses on one particular story involving a small group of men who attempt to make the crossing with the help of a "coyote", only to become lost and succumb to the heat. Many died in the attempt, making headlines in the news. We learn who they were and how they struggled. We learn who they left behind back home and what they hoped to do once in the United States. We learn how harsh the conditions are and what happens when those passing through aren't up to the task.

Additionally, we learn about coyotes, border agents, Mexican police, DEA agents, U.S. citizens who harass and possibly injure or kill them for sport, doctors and nurses who deal with the injured and ill once they arrive or are rescued, or deal with the dead once they are retrieved; all regular people with unique perspectives and up-close views on the immigration issues. And we learn about policies and practices that help or hinder those seeking opportunity and safety.

Urrea appears to give a fair accounting and view of a complicated situation. He gives detail after detail that bring these men alive, with all their hopes, dreams, ambitions, and suffering. For readers looking for a comprehensive account of border issues, this is an informative read/listen. Urrea is the narrator, which made for a pleasant listen even though he is dealing with disturbing material.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,785 reviews213 followers
March 9, 2020
“Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn’t know their own names, couldn’t remember where they’d come from, had forgotten how long they’d been lost… They were burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking, what paltry drool still available to them spuming from their mouths in a salty foam as they walked. Their eyes were cloudy with dust, almost too dry to blink up a tear. Their hair was hard and stiffened by old sweat, standing in crowns from their scalps, old sweat because their bodies were no longer sweating. They were drunk from having their brains baked in the pan, they were seeing God and devils, and they were dizzy from drinking their own urine, the poisons clogging their systems. They were beyond rational thought.” – Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway

In 2001, a group of twenty-six Mexican men crossed into the southern Arizona at a location called “The Devil’s Highway.” After a few days lost in desert in 100-degree heat, with water running out, their guide abandoned them. The account starts with hope and optimism and ends in suffering and death from hyperthermia.

Urrea covers the event from many perspectives. He gives background on the lives of the Mexican men, showing how they lived and what they hoped to achieve. He provides information about the human smuggling operation, explaining how the organization preys on their targets by minimizing the risks and offering “loans” at high rates of interest to fund the journey. He examines the role of the Border Patrol agents, who perform dangerous work in extreme conditions. “If it was the Border Patrol’s job to apprehend lawbreakers, it was equally their duty to save the lost and the dying.”

Though he researches and documents this event as a journalist, Urrea has written a number of novels, and his style is that of a skilled storyteller. The author is a Mexican American with experience in living near the border. I found this book enlightening and recommend it to anyone that wants to gain more understanding of the many complexities of the U.S.-Mexico border situation.
Profile Image for LATOYA JOVENA.
175 reviews23 followers
April 16, 2017
Part 1 is over written and over told. I think the author was trying to provide context but it was like someone describing a map. Boring.
Part 2 is just as descriptive but it becomes entrancing. I could visualize everything those men went through in the desert. After that the over explaining begins again.
Although it's not perfect I think everyone should read this book before they form an opinion on immigration. These "illegal immigrants" didn't come here to have "anchor babies" or get on "welfare." They came here to take low wage jobs to send money home. Isn't this what Americans think a man is supposed to do, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and support their families?
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,702 followers
March 28, 2021
Twenty years since this horrific event and little has changed on the US/Mexico border. I hope people continue to discover this book, as I finally did in the wake of last year's controversy about a fictionalized account of a Mexican woman coming to the United States, and in turn discover the truth of the immigrant experience along our southern border. Beautifully, tragically, truthfully told, The Devil's Highway is a classic of investigative, narrative non-fiction. Read this, everyone.
Profile Image for LT.
17 reviews
April 5, 2020
Urrea writes an engrossing, disturbing, and tragic account of the Yuma 14. In May of 2001, a group of 26 people got lost in the Arizona desert while attempting to crossthe border, and only 12 survived. I decided to read the book after hearing Urrea speak here in Bloomington. In person, he was an amazing story teller, and explained the process of writing the devil's highway. I learned a lot about the politics and geography of the border, and the different stories of the individuals involved - the immigrants, the coyotes, the border patrol, the mexican consulate, etc.
Profile Image for Lara.
4,139 reviews339 followers
May 5, 2018
This is a really sad story, and definitely looks at the many facets of border crossings and border politics in a fairly balanced way. But I had a very hard time with the way Urrea chose to tell it.

If this were a documentary, it would be one of the overly-dramatic ones filled with a little too much speculation and a few too many cheesy reenactments that you find on the Discovery and History channels. He may have gotten most of his facts right, but because of the way those facts are presented, I find I have doubts about it.

It also seemed really disorganized to me, and it felt at times as though Urrea couldn't quite remember what he had or hadn't already said. Some things are repeated over and over again, while other details are completely lacking. There are waaaaay too many one-word sentences. And I got really frustrated with the vagueness of a lot of his descriptions--especially several quotes attributed only to "someone." The whole thing felt like a huge mess to me.

A lot of other reviewers seem to be saying that this is the best book about the subject out there, but I feel like they either can't have had many to choose from, or have drastically different standards than I do when it comes to non-fiction writing. I don't know. In any case, I don't feel like I really got much out of this one (other than annoyance), so I'll look around for something else on the topic. Beh.
Profile Image for Carol.
2,325 reviews71 followers
October 12, 2021
I needed a book that was set in Mexico for...yes...those of you that know me know that some books that are not my usual fare are for more than likely for....another challenge. I just don't seem to be able to resist them:) I was prepared to read it...I liked the title (not really a "good" reason to read a book I know) but as I got into it I found myself really drawn in. My grandparents and my mother were immigrants from Ireland, so I grew up hearing the reasons that drove immigrants to flee their native countries, and I saw firsthand the heartache that it causes. I saw my grandmother cry for her Ireland until the day that she died at 98 years of age. Mr. Urrea graphically described what people will do out of desperation to help their families, as well as how governments around the world have time after time failed these individuals. The book is sad, it's graphic and it's sometimes painful to read...but it should be "required reading". The book does include what some would call "tall tales" that can't be substantiated...but then most of history can't be accurately substantiated...but the fact remains that occurrences that take place in this book are a part of our history...for better or for worse.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
870 reviews107 followers
December 7, 2016
This was an excellent book on border crossings between Mexico and the U.S. It is horrifying as well. I can still see the mummified bodies of those who tried to cross the borders with just one ola in their hands. They thought that all they had to do was walk across, and they were there in a town or city; instead a desert met them, and they died within a very short period of time.
Profile Image for Amy.
206 reviews2 followers
May 25, 2018
While listening to this audio book, I felt just as lost as those wandering the Devil's Highway. The narrative is scattered & the author rambles. I think I would've enjoyed this one a lot more had it been told in a linear format.
Profile Image for Nick Iuppa.
Author 27 books112 followers
February 26, 2017
THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY is Luis Alberto Urrea’s account of a disastrous effort by twenty-six impoverished Mexican men to cross the border into the United States and find work to support the families. They had their dreams: buying a home for their parents, a new roof for their wife, schooling for their children, a car, gifts for their girlfriends. There was just no work in the impoverished city of Vera Cruz from which they came. They each paid over a thousand pesos for a knowledgeable guide to lead them safely across. One father brought his young son along. Of the 26 men who set out with their two guides, only twelve survived. The others died of exposure and heat stroke and madness in the relentless 110º temperatures of the Arizona desert.

Jesus Lopez Ramos was only in his teens, a kid who worked for the so-called Coyotes (organizations that smuggle undocumented immigrants fro Mexico into the United States.) He got his charges across into America, but the more experienced guide who was to accompany him did not show up. Instead, Ramos was left with lieutenants who were older but less experienced than he was. In the end, he was in charge, and to his eternal credit and blame, he took control.

The men brought water, money, letters from their loved ones, snacks, surely enough to get them to the point where buses would pick them up and take them to Florida, the Carolinas Illinois, or other American states where they could work safely. But young Ramos got confused, made bad decisions, didn’t explain their plight to the men until they had been out in that endless sun for days. By then the Mexicans would have welcomed arrest by the border patrols or the National Park Service, (the area they walked into was, in fact, part of Organ Pipe Cactus National Park). Even encounters with the vigilantes who patrolled the border on their own would have been welcomed over the killing heat and the maddening lack of water.

Urrea is a poet as well as a novelist and a journalist. He is well equipped to convey the humanity, pain, emotional suffering, and physical damage inflicted by such an ordeal. We feel it all. In the end we witness the painful death of twelve of the men, we learn what it’s like to die of thirst after drinking your own urine as a last resort... over and over again. We learn how madness and hallucinations set in; how men crazily try to swim in sand, eat cacti in spite of the thorns jabbing into their faces. We learn of the confoundingly generous treatment that the survivors received when they were finally taken by the Border Patrol, and the life sentence handed down to Ramos for the mistakes he made on the journey (though Urrea suggests that there was little or no malice in anything he did).

We are surprised to learn that the border patrol and other agents at the border are often generous and merciful in their treatment of the undocumented immigrants. They have been known to provide stores of water along the most desolate pathways so that the immigrants do not have to suffer as these men did. Through detailed exercises in budgeting and finance, we learn the true balance sheet of the economics of the border crossings. It’s not at all what you would expect.

This is the fourth book I’ve read by Urrea. Each is a five-star masterpiece. This work is no exception. The author’s ability to befriend and understand people on all sides of the issues, his untiring efforts to explore every document, very bit of minutia involved in the story and the legal case, even his sense of humor through the worst of it make this a spectacular though tragic adventure. The audio book may be even better than the text. Urrea’s patient, careful, distinct enunciation of the places, people and events in this tragedy really bring it all home. This is not propaganda, this is truth.

Profile Image for Jan.
1,045 reviews29 followers
February 12, 2021
Urrea brings his compassionate heart, his knowledge of the Mexican-American borderlands, and his skills as a reporter, novelist and poet to this nonfiction story of a 2001 border crossing that went tragically awry. While some circumstances have changed, the book remains relevant, important and unforgettable.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,155 reviews1,612 followers
March 27, 2015
If hell really existed, it would likely look like the Devil’s Highway in southern Arizona – an area so harsh and unforgiving that even the Border Patrol is afraid to travel through it.

In May 2001, 26 Mexican men attempted to cross the Mexican border after gifting the Coyotes – human smugglers – with just about every peso they have. And then their journey goes terribly wrong. “They didn’t carry enough water. Can there ever be enough water? Probably not. But the Popielas carried a couple of those little plastic twenty-ounce bottles with them, the kind you buy cold in the Coke cooler at the Circle K…”

Luis Alberto Urrea writes so powerfully that there is a sense of immediacy and tragic intimacy in just about every paragraph. Take this opening paragraph: “Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn’t know their own names, couldn’t remember where they’d come from, had forgotten how long they’d been lost. One of them was barefoot. They were burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking, what paltry drool still available to them spuming from their mouths in a salty foam…They were drunk from having their brains baked in the pan, they were seeing God and devils, and they were dizzy from drinking their own urine…”

Illegal immigration is an issue that has been used reductively – good versus evil – and Mr. Urrea refuses to fall into that trap. He is well aware that illegals make up 23 percent of unpaid bills in the Southwest’s ER’s and care centers for example, but this book is written to show Americans the face of the undocumented.

In an aftermath, Mr. Urrea writes, “It was a chance to introduce Americans to the Border Patrol agent – a law enforcement officer who is disrespected, insulted, and demeaned by both the right and the left. Finally, it was a chance to reveal the complexities of the international crime syndicates that are now selling human flesh as if it were bags of marijuana.”

The entire book rings with the authenticity of an eyewitness; it is obvious that Luis Alberto Urrea has done massive research into this tragedy. The richness of language, the empathy, the tragedy of the horrific trek through the Sonora is sometimes elevated to sheer poetry. It is an epic book that illuminates the nature of men at their most desperate and it will likely haunt my dreams. Devil’s Highway was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. It is a tour de force.

Profile Image for Steve.
794 reviews220 followers
April 30, 2010
The Devil's Highway, is a pretty good book. Urrea sees no sacred cows - except for perhaps the poor individuals who dare to cross over to the U.S. Urrea's border landscape is murderous one, and the "Coyotes" that lead the illegals across are predators and gangsters. It's all about money. Urrea does his best to give each of those who suffered through the 2001 ordeal (the Yuma 14 (those that died), or Wellton 26 (the entire party), take your pick), faces, lives, hopes. They are people, and not just rotting bodies found in the desert. Still, I get the sense that The Devil's Highway, is a bit padded. There are also a few inaccuracies (Department of Interior police as a separate body from the BLM? An inaccurate description of a Tarantino movie), which left me feeling that Urrea was shooting from the hip. Given the subject matter, he can't help but hit his target (which is extended to both sides of the border), but when I see mistakes (even nitpicky ones), I wonder, whatever the book, what other ones am I missing? Further, Urrea's style will remind you of Hunter Thompson, or even James Ellroy. This is risky writing, but one that can also, in time, annoy when the unnecessary slang piles up. At its worst, it seems like the writer is more interested in being hip than telling the story. It's a high wire act. Urrea, for the most part, stays on that wire, but there were a few times where the slang gets to be annoying.

But even with a slightly padded feel to it, it's the last twenty or so pages of The Devil's Highway that deliver the goods. Urrea could easily expand on those twenty pages and write a new book on the current state of the Mexican and American Border. There were some real revelations for me - such as Mexico losing jobs to China - just like everyone else, which of course contributes to the lure of going North. How illegal immigration contributes to suppressing wages in the U.S., which is why Industry just loves the current situation. The sheer violence (and weirdness) of the Border: Mexican law enforcement crossing over in pursuits and shootouts; a very disturbing wave of what seems to be connected murders of women in Juarez (it's been going on for ten years!); and of course the deadly trek north, with Hope and Death sitting in the balance, while Money holds the scales.
Profile Image for Christopher.
648 reviews210 followers
July 6, 2016
The border between the U.S. and Mexico is a mythical, brutal place. A no-man's land that men often cross through, or die in. In May 2014, two dozen men entered "the Devil's Highway", a stretch of desert between Sonora in Mexico and Yuma, Arizona in America. Fourteen of these men did not come out alive.

This is not an uncommon fate for "undocumented entrants"; hundreds of migrants die every year trying to gain entry to America. (1,954 people died crossing the border between 1998 and 2004*. Heat stroke, dehydration, and hypothermia are the leading causes of death*. The only thing that makes the "Yuma 14" special is the number of people who died at once.

This book tells the story of the Yuma 14 as an archetypal border crossing tragedy. The author treats all characters with the utmost respect, from the migrants to the coyotes who eventually abandoned them, to the border patrol. Even as a Mexican-American with understandable bias in favor of those south of the border, he manages to tell a completely empathic story in which everyone is treated humanely.

That is, except for the U.S. border policy itself, which is destructive, xenophobic, and racist. If you were to listen to a certain small-handed Presidential candidate, there is a flood of "illegals" coming across the border to rape your wife, steal your wallet and your job. This would be absolutely laughable if it wasn't so sad how many people believe it so readily. As much data as there is in this book and as much time one can take formulating an argument about how immigrants—both legal and illegal—actually benefit the U.S. economy (which they do), the primary lesson from this book is that we are all humans and deserve to be treated as such. Don't let bigots dehumanize "the other". Embrace what everyone shares in common, rather than creating division.

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to the Yuma 14 and the border in general; here are some useful links:

Interactive Map of the Yuma 14's travels

Original NYTimes article about the Yuma 14

Bill Moyers interview, how the author came to sympathize with Border Patrol agents

Devil's Highway: An Evening with Autho Luis Urrea

US-Mexico Border Policy Report, does a great job of highlighting the problems of the current policy and provides practical solutions
Profile Image for Alison Hardtmann.
1,248 reviews2 followers
December 16, 2018
This book was published seven years ago and should be required reading today. It describes how undocumented workers get to the farms, motels, fast food restaurants and factories of the United States and why they undertake that perilous journey through the story of a typical group of men who attempted to cross the Arizona desert on foot. It's brilliantly and humanely written, showing everyone from the Border Patrol to the coyotes who guide the group so disastrously wrong in a critical, but compassionate way.

As the political rhetoric heats up here and we have successfully renamed the people who pick our oranges and cook our Big Macs illegal aliens, as though they were non-human and essentially evil, this book is more important than ever. While Urrea does have a bias toward compassion and understanding, he doesn't flinch from addressing the costs to everyone of the issue of workers crossing illegally to work in the north. He also illuminates both the reasons people would be driven to undertake an expensive and potentially deadly journey and the ways American immigration policy has created unforeseen consequences.

If every article or book written on this topic were as well-researched and free of hyperbole, I think the national debate on immigration would be both more reasonable and more productive.
Profile Image for Calzean.
2,591 reviews1 follower
August 12, 2017
A detailed, sad story of one border crossing from Mexico to the USA which went very, very wrong. Urrea skilfully presents the story through the eyes of the walkers, the Coyotes, the financiers, the gangsters, Mexican government, US government, border patrols officers. One of his quotes was from the local Mexican consul who said, "What kills the people is the politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border". As an outsider, it seems nothing has changed.
Profile Image for Yesenia Cash.
223 reviews17 followers
May 21, 2020
Wonderfully written and narrated, It’s heart wrenching to hear/read stories about my people’s journeys across the border!
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