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The Devil's Highway


The Rules of the Game

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 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. Visions of home fluttered through their minds. Soft green bushes, waterfalls, children, music. Butterflies the size of your hand.Leaves and beans of coffee plants burning through the morning mist as if lit from within. Rivers. Not like this place where they'd gotten lost. Nothing soft here. This world of spikes and crags was as alien to them as if they'd suddenly awakened on Mars. They had seen cowboys cut open cacti to find water in the movies, but they didn't know what cactus among the many before them might hold some hope. Men tore their faces open chewing saguaros and prickly pears, leaving gutted plants that looked like animals had torn them apart with their claws. The green here was gray.

They were walking now for water, not salvation. Just a drink. They whispered it to each other as they staggered into parched pools of their own shadows, forever spilling downhill before them: Just one drink, brothers. Water. Cold water! They walked west, though they didn't know it; they had no concept anymore of destination. The only direction they could manage was through the gap they stumbled across as they cut through the Granite Mountains of southern Arizona. Now canyons and arroyos shuffled them west, toward Yuma, though they didn't know where Yuma was and wouldn't have reached it if they did.

They came down out of the screaming sun and broke onto the rough plains of the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, at the south end of the United States Air Force's Barry Goldwater bombing range, where the sun recommenced its burning. Cutting through this region, and lending its name to the terrible landscape, was the Devil's Highway, more death, another desert. They were in a vast trickery of sand.

In many ancient religious texts, fallen angels were bound in chains and buried beneath a desert known only as Desolation. This could be the place.

In the distance, deceptive stands of mesquite trees must have looked like oases. Ten trees a quarter mile apart can look like a cool grove from a distance. In the western desert, twenty miles looks like ten. And ten miles can kill. There was still no water; there wasn't even any shade.

Black ironwood stumps writhed from the ground.Dead for five hundred years, they had already been two thousand years old when they died. It was a forest of eldritch bones. The men had cactus spines in their faces, their hands. There wasn't enough fluid left in them to bleed. They'd climbed peaks, hoping to find a town, or a river, had seen more landscape, and tumbled down the far side to keep walking. One of them said, "Too many damned rocks." Pinches piedras, he said. Damned heat. Damned sun.

Now, as they came out of the hills, they faced the plain and the far wall of the Gila Mountains. Mauve and yellow cliffs. A volcanic cone called Raven's Butte that was dark, as if a rain cloud were hovering over it. It looked as if you could find relief on its perpetually shadowy flanks, but that too was an illusion. Abandoned army tanks, preserved forever in the dry heat, stood in their path, a ghostly arrangement that must have seemed like another bad dream. Their full-sun 110-degree nightmare.

"The Devil's Highway" is a name that has set out to illuminate one notion: bad medicine.

The first white man known to die in the desert heat here did it on January 18, 1541.

Most assuredly, others had died before. As long as there have been people, there have been deaths in the western desert. When the Devil's Highway was a faint scratch of desert bighorn hoof marks, and the first hunters ran along it, someone died. But the brown and red men who ran the paths left no record outside of faded songs and rock paintings we still don't understand.

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. In Desolation, doves are at the bottom of the food chain. Tohono O'Odham poet Ofelia Zepeda has pointed out that rosaries and Hail Marys don't work out here. "You need a new kind of prayers," she says, "to negotiate with this land."

The first time the sky and earth came together, Elder Brother, I'itoi, was born. He still resides in a windy cave overlooking the western desert, and he resents uninvited visitors. Mountains are called do'ags. In the side of one do'ag can be found the twin caves where the spirit of the evil witch, Ho'ok, hides. The coyote-spirit of the place is called Ban, and he works his wicked pranks in the big open spaces.

Everywhere, red shadows. Tiny men live underground, and they are known to the Yaqui Indians hereabouts as Surem. In the past, before the first white man died, uku, the devil, controlled all the corn until the crows stole it from him and let some of it slip so men could eat. Mexico's oldest hoodoo, La Llorona, the wailing ghost, has been heard rushing down nearby creek beds. And its newest hoodoo, the dreaded Chupacabras (the Goat Sucker), has been seen attacking animals, lurking in outhouses, and even jumping in bedroom windows to munch on sleeping children. An Apache witness said the Chupacabras was a whispering kangaroo. It said, "Come here." He swore it did.

The plants are noxious and spiked.Saguaros, nopales, the fiendish chollas. Each long cholla spike has a small barb, and they hook into the skin, and they catch in elbow creases and hook forearm and biceps together. Even the green mesquite trees have long thorns set just at eye level.

Much of the wildlife is nocturnal, and it creeps through the nights, poisonous and alien: the sidewinder,the rattlesnake, the scorpion, the giant centipede, the black widow, the tarantula, the brown recluse, the coral snake, the Gila monster. The kissing bug bites you and its poison makes the entire body erupt in red welts. Fungus drifts on the valley dust, and it sinks into the lungs and throbs to life. The millennium has added a further danger: all wild bees in southern Arizona, naturalists report, are now Africanized. As if the desert felt it hadn't made its point, it added killer bees.

Today, the ancient Hohokam have vanished, like the Anasazi, long gone in the north. Their etchings and ruins still dot the ground; unexplained radiating lines lead away from the center like ghost roads in the shape of a great star. Not all of these paths are ancient. Some of the lines have been made by the illegals, cutting across the waste to the far lights of Ajo, or Sells, or the Mohawk rest area on I-8. Others are old beyond dating, and no one knows where they lead. Footprints of long-dead cowboys are still there, wagon ruts and mule scuffs. And beneath these, the prints of the phantom Hohokam themselves.

In certain places, boulders form straight lines,arrayed along compass directions on the burning plains. Among these stones are old rock piles in the shapes of arrows. They were left by well-wishers in 1890, aiming at a tinaja (water hole) hidden among crags. Cairns that serve as mysterious signposts for messages long forgotten mix with ancient graves. Etchings made in the hardpan with feet or sticks form animals centuries old and only visible from the air. Some of these cairns have been put in place by Border Patrol signcutters (trackers), and they are often at the junction of two desert paths, but the cutters just smile when you ask what they mean. One more secret of Desolation.

When the white men came, they brought with them their mania for record keeping. They made their way across the land, subduing indigenous tribes, civilizing the frontier. Missionaries brought the gentle word of the Lamb. Cavalrymen bravely tamed the badlands, built military outposts, settlements, ranches, and towns. Cowboys rode like the wind. Gunslingers fell. The worst bandits you could imagine drank rotgut and shot sheriffs, yet lived on in popular mythology and became the subjects of popular songs and cheap fictions. Railroads followed, and the great cattle drives, and the dusty range wars, and the discovery of gold and silver. In the great north woods, lumberjacks collected the big trees. The Alamo. The Civil War took out countless citizens in its desperate upheaval.

Every Tijuana schoolkid knows it: it's the history of Mexico.


If the North American continent was broad ("high, wide, and lonesome"), then Mexico was tall. High,narrow, and lonesome. Europeans conquering North America hustled west, where the open land lay. And the Europeans settling Mexico hustled north. Where the open land was.

Immigration, the drive northward, is a white phenomenon. White Europeans conceived of and launched El Norte mania, just as white Europeans inhabiting the United States today bemoan it. They started to complain after the Civil War. The first illegal immigrants to be hunted down in Desolation by the earliest form of the Border Patrol were Chinese. In the 1880s, American railroad barons needed cheap skilled labor to help "tame our continent." Mexico's Chinese hordes could be hired for cheap, yet they could earn more in the United States than in Mexico, even at cut rates. Jobs opened, word went out, the illegals came north. Sound familiar?

Americans panicked at the "yellowing" of America. A force known as the Mounted Chinese Exclusionary Police took to the dusty wasteland. They chased the "coolies" and deported them. And today?

Sinful frontier towns with bad reputations. Untamed mountain ranges, bears, lions, and wolves. Indians. A dangerous border. Inhabitants speak with a cowpoke twang, listen to country music, dance the two-step, favor cowboy hats, big belt buckles, and pickup trucks. That ain't Texas, it's Sonora.

January 18,1541.

Sonoita (also known as Sonoyta) was perhaps not much more than sticks and mud, but it was a stopping point for a Spanish expedition in search of, what else, gold. Even in 1541, Sonoita was the unwilling host of killers and wanderers. The leader of this clanking Spaniard patrol was a firebrand known as Melchior Diaz. He didn't especially want to spend his holidays in the broiling dust of Sonoita, but he was deep into hostile territory. It was commonly believed that the natives of the Devil's Highway devoured human children. The Spaniards weren't planning on settling --- spread the cross around,throw up a mission, and hit the road in search of better things.

Melchior Diaz was trying to reach the Sea of Cortez, lying between the Mexican mainland and Baja California. Perhaps he knew that ahead of him lay the most hellish stretch of land in the entire north. The dirt paths he rode his horse down on that day are now the paved and semipaved barrio lanes of modern Sonoita. Some of the hubcap-popping boulders in Sonoita's hillside alleys are the same rocks on which Melchior's horse's shoes struck sparks.

He died trying to kill a dog. He probably didn't have anything against canines --- his troop had dogs that they used to hunt down game and humans. But there were also the feral creatures that dashed in from the out- skirts of the settlement to slaughter his sheep. Melchior Diaz kept his sheep in small brush corrals, attended by his Indian slaves. But the wild dogs had a way of sneaking off with lambs when nobody was looking.

And Melchior was cranky. He had spent his holidays far from home, among the savages, and even Tucson was only a small scattering of huts and lean-tos. He couldn't have been farther from Mexico City or Spain. Sonoita was the end of the world. A Christmas in this outpost did not inspire joy. Besides,conquistadores were notoriously short on joie de vivre.

Melchior rode well, and he rode well armed.He certainly carried a sword and a fighting dagger. He probably carried a harquebus and a long metal-tipped lance, the M16 of the day.

Melchior was a strong man and a powerful fighter. In the narratives of the Coronado expedition, we see him plying his trade: "...the horsemen began to overtake [the Indians ]and the lances cut them down mercilessly...until not a man was to be seen." This rout of natives serves as the preface to the story of death that begins with Melchior Dí'az.

We know that he was riding his horse down one of the settlement paths. We can project the smells swirling around him: horse, dirt, his own stink, chickens, smoke, dung. Not all that different from the smells of today.

He was approaching his sheep pen, perhaps where the Asi Es Mi Tierra taco shop, or a Pemex station stands today. Melchior squinted ahead and --- Damn it to hell! --- those lazy slaves of his had allowed a dog to get in the pen!

Perro desgraciado!

No record states how Melchior entered the pen, but it doesn't seem likely he stopped to open a gate. Not Melchior. He jumped over the fence, and in jumping, somehow he bobbled his lance throw and missed the dog entirely. You can see the dog yipping and sidestepping and making tracks for the horizon, casting wounded looks over his shoulder. And here is where Melchior Diaz died. The record states that Melchior, somehow, "passed over" the lance. Did he fall from the horse? No one knows, but the lance managed to penetrate his gut and rip him open.

The desert ground must have seemed terribly hard as he hit it. As Melchior died (it took twenty gruesome days)on his stinking cot, he burned and howled. Flies settled in his entrails. Maybe the very dog that killed him drew near to sniff the rich meaty scent. The fallen angels of Desolation came out of the Cabeza Prieta, folded their hands over him,and smiled.

The land had been haunted before Melchior died, and it remained haunted afterward; 150 years after his death, Catholic apparitions plagued the tribes. Various peoples had alarming encounters with meddlesome white women who flew above their heads. In the lands of the O'Odham, a white woman bearing a cross came drifting down 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. Her story was written down in 1699, but the scribe who wrote this history tells us it had happened so long ago that the tribe had already forgotten her.

Fifty years after this Blessed Virgin UFO, a female prophet came out of the desert. She was known as La Mujer Azul. The Blue Woman. They filled her full of arrows, too. This time, she died. Jesuits rolled in. They made the People as unhappy as the mysterious spirit-women, and Pimas raided the town to bludgeon its missionary to death. Angry umas by the Colorado River dragged a Jesuit out into the light and beat him to death.

It was the nineteenth century, however, that really got the modern era of death rolling.

The umas got stirred up again and massacred the evil scalp-hunting Glanton gang by the banks of the river in the mid 1840s. Then, in 1848-49, the California gold rush began. Mexicans weren't immune to the siren call of treasure. By now, the Cabeza Prieta/Devil's Highway had been trod by white men and mestizos for 307 years. It was still little more than a rough dirt trail --- it is still a rough dirt trail --- but it was slyly posing as a handy southern route through Arizona. White Arizonans and Texans hove to and dragged their wagons. Thousands of travelers went into the desert, and piles of human bones revealed where many of them fell. Though the bones are gone, wagon ruts can still be found, and near these ruts, piles of stone still hide the remains of those who fell.

One writer who has focused on this desert, Craig Childs, tells of a pair of old bullet casings found out there. They were jammed together, and when pried apart, an aged curl of paper fell out. On the paper, someone had written, "Was it worth it?"

The Sand Papagos saw the endless lines of scraggly Mexicans as a rolling supermarket. Their strategy was similar to their approach to the floating virgin: shoot arrows. Wagon train after wagon train was slaughtered. Besieged Mexicans begged their own army to protect them, but the Sand Papagos and their leader, a warrior named Quelele, the Carrion-Hawk, were ready for them, too.

Just to make sure the Mexicans got the point, Quelele let it be known that his favorite snack was dead Mexican. "I don't need the wagons!" he boasted. "Bring on the Mexican army! I am the Carrion-Hawk! I'm hungry for Mexican meat!"

Between Quelele and the harsh landscape, the numbers of dead soared beyond counting. Human skeletons were found lying beside the road, and eerie cattle and horses, reduced to blanched mummies, were reported to be standing out among the ironwood trees. Graves surrounded some waterholes, up to twenty-seven around one pothole alone.

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 sand storms that sweep at times over the desolate waste."

In the following years, over four hundred people died of heat, thirst, and misadventure. It became known as the most terrible place in the world.

And it's beautiful.Edward Abbey, the celebrated iconoclast and writer, loved the place. He chose to be buried there, illegally, among the illegal Mexicans he despised.

A young Tucson man stops at a table in a Mexican restaurant and addresses the gathered eaters. He has overheard their conversation about the desert. He pulls up a chair and launches into his tale.

He is a warlock-in-training, studying with one of the many shamans plying their trade in the area. He smiles and confesses that a certain aspect of Tucson is bothering him. That empty dirt lot? Over on the corner of Fourth and Speedway? Like, a couple blocks from the okohama Rice Bowl?

The master has shown him that the lot has always been vacant, empty since the 1600s. Nobody has ever dared build upon it, and the houses around the lot are plagued by ghosts and poltergeists. But they're not really ghosts. Dude, they're demons. It's one of the seven open gates of hell. A magus can sit in his pickup and summon the Beast while eating a teriyaki bowl and Diet Coke. Thus, this small narrative is also about Tucson,the civilized part of Desolation, a city with its own secrets and holes. A desert can be a scrape of land or a small gravel lot. You can imagine the spirit of the empty places. The places named for the devil himself.

Route 86 begins its life in Tucson as "Ajo Way." Here, a source close to this story once saw the actual Cabeza Prieta. Beyond the O'Odham village of Sells, near the Coyote (human-smuggler) pickup point of mile marker 27, there is a dirt bank beside Highway 86. A few concrete houses sit behind it, about one hundred yards from the road. On the top of the bank is a single mailbox, on a crooked white pole.

It wasn't even at night when the Cabeza Prieta showed itself. It wasn't dawn,or the gloaming of sunset. It was in the heart of a brutal desert afternoon. The sun was bright,and the temperatures were hovering at about 104. Not a cloud in sight. Suddenly, the ground split. Just a little hole, more of a slit, really. Maybe an ant hill, gravel scattered around the edge. Dirt welling up out of the hole like water.

Out of the small hole rose a black human head. It glistened, either wet or made of coal, some black crystal. Its eyes were burning white. Its teeth were also white. Its face was narrow, and it sported a sharp beard on its chin. It rose until just the tops of its shoulders were visible. It cast a shadow. And it turned as it watched the traveler pass. It was laughing at him.

The men walked onto the end of a dirt road. They couldn't know it was called the Vidrios Drag. Now they had a choice. Cross the road and stagger along the front range of the mountains, or stay on the road and hope the Border Patrol would find them. The Border Patrol! Their nemesis. They'd walked into hell trying to escape the Border Patrol, and now they were praying to get caught.

In their state, a single idea was too complex, and they looked upon it with uncertainty. They shuffled around. It was ten o'clock in the morning, 104 degrees. Dust devils, dead creosote rattling like diamondbacks, the taunting icy chip of sunlight reflected off a high-flying plane. Weird sounds in the landscape: voices, coughs, laughter, engines. It was the desert haunting they'd been hearing all along. When they heard the engine coming, it sounded like locusts flying overhead, cicadas, wind. And the dust rising could have been smoke from small fires. The flashes of white out there, heading toward them, popping out from behind saguaros and paloverde trees --- well, it could have been ghosts, flags, a parade. It could have been anything. They didn't know if they should hide or stand their ground and face whatever was coming their way.

When the windshield flashed in the morning sun, they stood, they walked, ran, tripped, fell. Toward the truck, the white truck. The unlikely geometry of disaster once again worked them into its eternal ciphers.

Border Patrol agent Mike F., at the tail end of another dull drag, was driving his Explorer at a leisurely pace. No fresh sign anywhere on the ground. Boredom. He was about to pull a U and head back to 25E, the dirt road that cut down from Interstate 8 to the Devil's Highway and the Mexican border beyond, looked up, and beheld the men as they walked out of the light. Nothing special. You got lost walkers all the time, people begging for a drink. They often gave themselves up when they realized the western desert had gotten the better of them. Sometimes, you beat them down with your baton, and sometimes everybody just laughed and drank your water.

Only one of the walkers stepped forward. The rest hid under trees. They were watching Mike F. like deer in the shadows. He took in the scene as he rolled toward them. He stopped, put the truck in park, and opened his door. He put out a foot and gestured for them with one hand to stay put while he got the radio mike with the other and called in to Wellton Station. Cops tend to assess a situation at first glance --- people are always up to something. In the desert, they were often involved in some form of dying. Most of them, if not in trouble, were sneaky. If they weren't illegals, or smugglers, or narco mules, they were trespassing on the military base in some Ed Abbey desert fantasy, or they were cactus thieves, swiping young saguaros for their Scottsdale gardens. Gringos caused more alarm out there than Mexicans. And the OTMs --- Other Than Mexicans --- were so hapless and weird that you'd just laugh. Like the time they found a large group of Arabs in matching slacks and neckties, like some demented terrorist Jehovah's Witness neighborhood canvass. "Oh? Are we here illegally? Oh! This is, you say, the United States? Right here? No, we did not know that. Praise to God. We were taking a walk, Allahu Akbar."

Bad guys had cornered the market on trying to look casual and "innocent." Mexicans, when not giving up,when not running like maniacs, often got wide-eyed,like a two-year-old stealing cookies. I didn't do nothin'! I was just out here looking around! The more innocent they acted, the more nervously slouchy and devil-may-care or childlike in their sinlessness, the more hinky the whole scene was, and the cop would start fingering his sidearm.

These guys were clearly no threat --- no need to unholster a weapon yet. The radio call went something like: "We've got five bodies on Vidrios Drag, over." His voice probably sounded bored.

"Getting bodies," in Border Patrol lingo, didn't necessarily mean collecting corpses. Bodies were living people. "Bodies" was one of the many names for them. Illegal aliens, dying of thirst more often than not, are called "wets" by agents. "Five wets" might have slipped out. "Wets" are also called "tonks," but the Border Patrol tries hard to keep that bon mot from civilians. It's a nasty habit in the ranks. Only a fellow border cop could appreciate the humor of calling people a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head.

Agent F. did not say he had "tonks" on the road. Arrests of illegals are often slightly wry, vaguely embarrassing events. The relentless border war is often seen as a highly competitive game that can even be friendly when it's not frightening and deadly. Agents often know their clients, having apprehended them several times already. Daytime arrests have a whole different tone than lone midnight busts, out there in an abandoned landscape where the nearest backup might be a hundred hard miles away. But night or day, the procedure tends to be the same. The cop gets out of the truck and adjusts his gun-belt and puts his hands on his hips and addresses the group in Spanish: "Hola,amigos! Estan arrestados." The Border Patrol so terrifies some of them that they give up immediately. Things happen. Stories burn all along the borderlands of Border Patrol men taking prisoners out into the wasteland and having their way with them. Women handcuffed, then groped and molested. Coyotes shot in the head.

Texas Rangers allegedly handcuff homeboys and toss them into irrigation canals to drown, though the walkers can't tell the Border Patrol apart from the Rangers or any other mechanized hunt squad: they're all cowboys. Truncheons. Beatings. Shootings. Broken legs. Torn panties. Blood. Tear gas. Pepper spray. Kicked ribs. Rape. These are the words handed from border town to border town, a savage gospel of the crossing. And the dark image of the evil Border Patrol agent dogs every signcutter who goes into the desert in his truck. It's the tawdry legacy of the human hunt --- ill will on all sides. Paranoia. Dread. Loathing. Mexican-American Border Patrol agents are feared even more by the illegals than the gringos, for the Mexicans can only ascribe to them a kind of rabid self-hatred. Still, when the walkers are dying, they pray to be found by the Boys in Green. The Border Patrol is understandably touchy about this reputation. They think the Jack Nicholson film The Border, where all agents and of officers are corrupt, is funny as hell. They recommend a good Charles Bronson film about the Border Patrol if you want to know what it's really like. Something a little more straight up, more cowboy --- cowboy in a good way, in the traditional way.

The five men rushed toward the truck. "They're dying," they gasped. "Who's dying?" "Men. Back there. Amigos." Seventeen men, they said. Agent F. gave them water. They gulped. They puked the water back out and didn't care. They drank more. "Muertos! Muertos!"

Seventeen. Then thirty. One man thought there were seventy bodies fallen behind them. When Agent F. called it in to Wellton, the station's supervisory officer said, "Oh,shit."

For a long time, the Border Patrol had worried that something bad was coming. Something to match or outstrip the terrible day in 1980 when a group of Salvadorans was abandoned in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and thirteen of them died. If it was the Border Patrol's job to apprehend lawbreakers, it was equally their duty to save the lost and the dying. The guys at Wellton knew the apocalypse had finally come.

Southern Arizona is divided into two Border Patrol sectors, Tucson and Yuma. Fifteen hundred agents patrol Tucson sector; three hundred work Yuma. Tucson handles the eastern half of the state, starting at the small city of Ajo and covering Tucson, Nogales, Douglas, Patagonia,and so on. Yuma sector patrols the west, all the way to the Colorado River and beyond. They are responsible for Gila Bend, Dateland, Wellton, San Luis, and Yuma.

Strangely enough, they also patrol into California's Imperial County. This has caused legal tribulations with the Mexican consulate in Calexico, California: illegals apprehended in eastern California should be tried in San Diego, but they are transported to Phoenix, where their cases are heard. Responsibility for these people can stretch from San Diego to Calexico to Tucson and finally to Phoenix. It only adds to the general chaos that rules the border, a chaos that the Tucson consul calls "the politics of stupidity." Both Border Patrol sectors had been hammered by growing tidal waves of illegals. Urban crossings had been sealed off, and now smaller rural crossings were systematically clamping down. Operation Gatekeeper, the final solution to the border crossings, introduced by California in the late nineties, had ushered in a new era of secure urban borders and trampled wilderness. San Diego, Calexico, Yuma, El Paso, Nogales, Douglas, they were all becoming harder to get through. This looked great for the politicians of the cities. Voila! No more Mexicans!

Bigger fences, floodlights, a Border Patrol truck every half-mile, sensors, infrared spy videos, night vision cameras, Immigration and Naturalization Service checkpoints on all major freeways in and out of town, more agents.

But now, smaller, rougher places were becoming hot spots. The drug-smuggling village of Naco, for example. The small chicken-scratch settlement of Sasabe. The Tohono O'Odham reservation's small villes.

And astounding numbers of humans were moving through their deserts. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument,a relatively compact portion of Tucson sector, was withering under two hundred thousand walkers passing through every year. Deaths were on the rise: in the half decade before Mike F. found the five walkers on Vidrios Drag, more than two thousand people had died along the Mexican border. Death by sunlight,hyperthermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks.

The unofficial policy was to let them lie where they were found, resting in peace where they fell. Any fan of Joseph Wambaugh books or cop shows on TV can figure out the rest of the story. All cases, for all cops, require paperwork. The Border Patrol is no different. Each corpse generates a case file. Every unidentified corpse represents one case forever left open --- you can never close the case if you can never find out who the dead walker was or where he or she came from. But uncollected --- unreported --- bones generate no files. Besides, how do the agents know if the bones are one hundred years old?

The Arizona Border Patrol's beat included this deadly western desert, a region enclosing Organ Pipe and the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, the Papago (Tohono O'Odham)reservation, the northern fingers of the Mexican Pinacate desert, the Goldwater bombing range,and the dreaded Camino del Diablo --- the Devil's Highway. It is a vast trapezoid of land, bound by I-19 to the east, and the Colorado River to the west; I-8 to the north, and Mexican Route 2 and the imaginary border to the south.

You'd be hard pressed to meet a Border Patrol agent in either southern Arizona sector who had not encountered death. It would be safe to say that every one of them,except for the rankest probie just out of the academy, had handled at least one dead body. And they all knew the locations of unidentified skeletons and skulls. Bones peppered the entire region.

All the agents seem to agree that the worst deaths are the young women and the children. Pregnant women with dying fetuses within them are not uncommon; young mothers have been found dead with infants attached to their breasts, still trying to nurse. A mother staggers into a desert village carrying the limp body of her son; doors are locked in her face. The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes. When the five dying men told Agent F. they'd been abandoned, he called in the information. The dispatcher responded with a Banzai Run.

The town of Wellton is in a wide plain on I-8. It is tucked between Yuma's mountain ranges and the Mohawk Valley, with its strange volcanic upthrusts. The American Canal cuts through the area, and a bombing range is to the south. Running just below I-8 is the railway line that carries freight from Texas to California. Most train crews have learned to carry stores of bottled water to drop out of their locomotives at the feet of staggering illegals.

Wellton Station sits atop a small hill north of the freeway. It is isolated enough that some car radios can't pick up a signal on either AM or FM bands. Cell phones often show "Out of Service Area" messages and go mute.

Many agents, borderwide, commute a fair distance to their stations. Drives of twenty, forty, even seventy miles are common. But the trips to and from work afford them a period of quiet, of wind-down or wind-up time. It is not always easy to leap from bed and go hunt people. Besides, the old-timers have learned to really love the desert, the colors in the cliffs, the swoop of a red-tailed hawk, the saffron dust devils lurching into the hills.

For most agents, it works this way:you get up at dawn and put on your forest green uniform. As you get to work,you pull in behind the station to the fenced lot. You punch in your code on the keypad, and you park beside the other machines safe from your enemies behind the chain-link.our station is a small Fort Apache. On one side, the agents line up their trucks and sports cars, and on the other side sits the fleet of impeccably maintained Ford Explorers. Border Patrol agents are often military men, and they are spit-and-polish. Their trucks are clean and new; their uniforms are sharp; and their offices are busy but generally squared away. The holding cells in the main building --- black steel mesh to the far left of the main door --- sparkle. Part of this is, no doubt, due to the relentless public focus on the agency. In Calexico, the Mexican consulate has upped the ante by placing a consulate office inside the actual station: prisoners are greeted by the astounding sight of a service window with Mexican flags and Mexican government signs.

Inside, Wellton Station is a strange mix of rundown police precinct and high-tech command center. Old wood paneling, weathered tables. Computers and expensive radios at each work- station. In the back building, supervisory officer and mainstay of the station Kenny Smith has a couple of radios going, which he listens to, and a couple of phones ringing every few minutes, which he generally ignores. A framed picture of a human skull lying in the desert hangs on the wall. It has a neat hole in the forehead,above one eye socket. "Don't get any cute ideas," one of the boys says. "We didn't shoot that guy."

A computer is on all the time, and GPS satellite hardware bleeps beside it. Above Kenny's desk is a huge topo map showing the region. He sits in a swivel chair and reigns over his domain. He has an arrow with its notched end stuffed into a gas station antenna ball. He holds the ball in his fist and uses the arrow to point out various things of interest on the map.

On the wall is the big call-chart. Names and desert vectors are inked onto a white board in a neat grid. Agents' last names are linked to their patrol areas. In the morning, you check the board, banter with Kenny, say good morning to the station chief, stop by to say hello to Miss Anne, who runs the whole shebang from her neat desk in the big main room out front.

The town of Wellton is farms and dirt, dirt and farms. New agents, fresh from the East or West coasts, amuse the old boys by asking where they can find an espresso or a latte. Kenny Smith tells them, "Well, you can go down to Circle K and get a sixteen- ounce coffee. Then put some flavored creamer in it." That one never fails to get a laugh out of the old boys. An agent, sipping his stout coffee, is mid-story: "...And here comes Old José," he says, "all armed-up on some girlie!" Old Joséseems to be the archetypal tonk who shows up in stories. The listener, a steroidal- looking Aryan monster with a military haircut and a bass voice, notes: "Brutal." He turns to his computer keyboard and plugs away with giant fingers.

Everybody speaks Spanish. Several of the agents are Mexican Americans. Quite a few in each sector who aren't "Hispanic" are married to Mexican women.

Wellton Station is considered a good place to work. The old boys there are plain-spoken and politically incorrect. INS and Border Patrol ranks are overrun with smooth-talking college boys mouthing carefully worded sound bites. Not so in Wellton. Agents will tell you that the only way to get a clear picture of the real border world is to find someone who has been in service over four years. A ten-year veteran is even better. Wellton has its share of such veterans, but any agent who has been in service for ten years knows better than to talk to you about his business. A great compliment in the Border Patrol is: "He's a good guy." Wellton's agents are universally acknowledged by other agents as good guys. Jerome Wofford,they say, will give you the shirt off his back; the station chief will lend you his cherry SUV if you have special business.

Like the other old boys of Wellton Station, you love your country, you love your job, and though you would never admit it, you love your fellow officers. Civilians? They'll just call you jack- booted thugs, say you're doing a bad job, confuse you with INS border guards. You're not a border guard, you're a beat cop. Your station chief urges you not to hang out in small-town restaurants, not to frequent bars. Don't go out in uniform. Don't cross the border. Don't flash your badge. Don't speed, and if you do and get tagged for a ticket, don't use your badge to try to get out of it. Don't talk to strangers. In hamlets like Naco, San Luis, Nogales, civilians often won't make eye contact. Chicanos don't like you. Liberals don't like you. Conservatives mock and insult you. And politicians...politicians are the enemy.

There's always someone working in the office, early or late, every day and every night of every year. They're guarding the cells, monitoring the radios, writing reports. Sometimes, you can't sleep you can always come in to the clubhouse and find someone to talk to. Somebody who votes like you,talks like you. Believes in Christ or the Raiders like you. You can make coffee for the illegals in the cage, flirt with the senoritas --- though with all the sexual assault and rape charges that dog the entire border, you probably don't. Human rights groups are constantly lodging complaints, so you watch yourself. The tonks supposedly have phones in their holding pens so they can call lawyers to come slaughter you if you do anything wicked. You pull up one of the rolling office chairs, turn your back to them, and sit at a radio and listen to the ghostly voices of your partners out in the desert night, another American evening passing by.

But that's later. Now you get your assignment and you head out. You're usually alone. You pick up your vehicle from the yard. The station has its own gas pump, so you use your government card and fill the tank. You have a thermal jug of cool water. Sometimes you have a military map tube with topo maps. You have a GPS unit, and a radio on your belt. You have cuffs, pepper spray, and a baton --- you carry a .40 caliber sidearm in a holster at your hip. It has a clip loaded with hollow-point rounds. "You shoot a guy to kill him, not to hurt him. "That's the mantra. You carry extra clips.

The Explorers are nice. You go out there four-wheeling in an SUV that has been retrofitted by felons in a Texas prison. (Ain't that rich. The only thing you think would be richer would be if illegals in some Ford plant in Ohio fitted out your rig.) The Explorer has a cage behind the back seat, and a mounted radio down between the front seats, and a shotgun rack behind your seat, but separated from the wets by heavy mesh. An upright pump is usually clipped into the rack. They designed the truck without asking you. For a while there, they put radios in the trucks with the mike on the opposite side from the driver. You had to lean over the whole unit and feel around on the passenger's side. And some genius has designed the shotgun rack to go on the far side of the back seat, over by the door, so by the time you've bent back and struggled with it, the bad guy has busted caps in you. As it is,the mike on the radio is now exactly level with your right knee, so if you're not careful, you'll lean into it and punch the button and either jam the entire channel or transmit your own singing, farting, talking to yourself. The trucks weigh ten thousand pounds, so even in four wheel drive you can hit a sand pit and sink. You come out of that little crisis covered in dust like flour, looking like a ghost, and the assholes back at the station just about fall down laughing.

If they'd just let the beat cops run the asylum, you think, a lot of things would change.

The trucks have two standard features that everyone finds indispensable: a killer AC unit and a strong FM radio. With ground temperatures soaring to 130 on sunny days, and on certain nights dropping only as low as 98, the air conditioner is a lifesaver --- literally.. You can cool down a burning body right quick with the AC blasting, and with AC and a water jug, you can keep an illegal alive until the BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue) lifesavers swoop in with their helicopters. They're the Border Patrol's Air Cav.Cute red T-shirts. You save the wets and the boys in red fly in and get all the glory. You crap behind a bush,trying to keep it off your shoes,but BORSTAR goes on ABC nightly news.

As for the FM...driving 150 miles at thirty miles an hour, alone, scanning the ground for sign,is boring. Even the night runs, once your probie nerves wear off, are boring. Old boys try to liven them up for you. When you're new, they tell you the Chupacabras is out there on Vidrios Drag, and he sucks blood from lone wanderers. Or Bigfoot's been seen coming out of the Tinajas Altas pass. Or there are ghosts of dead walkers creeping around the Camino del Diablo. Sometimes the bastards will even sneak up on you and shout, right around 3:00 A.M. when you're sleepy, but that's a good way to get shot, so most of them don't bother. The FM keeps morale elevated. Radio calls to base often have a classic rock soundtrack --- Van Halen and Led Zeppelin bleed through the call-ins. Sometimes, newbies will be blasting the radio so loud they can't hear calls from dispatch.

"Ten, base ,ten. I'm twentied at the Pinacate Lava Flow. I'M GONNA GIVE YOU EVERY INCH OF MY LOVE! Over." One nonstandard lifesaver fits into the space between the base radio and the passenger seat. A roll of toilet paper. It beats a handful of cactus.

You grab a coffee at Circle K, microwave a burrito, then cross I-8 on the old bridge and head south on 25E. To the west, 29E parallels you. It is the actual terminus of the Devil's Highway. The twin E's take you to the Mexican border, crossing miles of a sere and mysterious bombing range --- our ironist's eye loves to pick out crazy things. Right near the Devil's Highway itself is a mutated saguaro that rises ten feet into the sky. Its main body is thick, and the top is a scarred, messed-up ball of tissue. It looks for all the world like an arm raising a fist. And wouldn't you know it, the "ears," or branches, that stick out form an index finger and a little finger. The Devil's Highway throws up a heavy metal devil sign to announce itself. The only thing missing is Ozzy Osbourne.

The aforementioned Army tanks molder in the eastern end of the basin. When no one is around (and no one is ever around) you can shoot at them for fun. On the west end, under Raven's Butte, there's an abandoned squadron of jet fighters. Rounds penetrate their skin easily. (You can't hardly even chip the paint off the tanks, though.) Sometimes, jet jockeys target the Border Patrol trucks and dog them from on high, vectoring in on their white roofs. Many of the Wellton guys enjoy flipping them the bird out the window, or even jumping from the truck in the middle of the faux strafing run and raising the finger at the startled pilots.

Marine patrols training on the dirt roads interdict the sign- cutters. It's pure bullshit --- pulling an agent over at gunpoint and demanding papers. This is supposed to be America. And how dumb do the jarheads have to be to pull over a federal agent, in uniform, in a clearly marked patrol car?

The sign announcing the advent of the Devil's Highway has been liberally punctuated by .50 caliber machine gun rounds. Those bored jarheads again. If you're out early, you'll see snakes on the road, soaking up some heat. Sidewinders are fun to harass --- you can pull up next to them and pour water on their heads. They have fits, but don't know who to bite. It's a riot.

There are other games the Border Patrol guys play. Sometimes they toss a recently shot rattlesnake, dead but still writhing and rattling, into the cage with the captured wets. Ha ha --- that's a funny sight, watching them go apeshit in the back of the truck. And they get it, right? Old Jose has a good sense of humor about it. He pissed his pants and screamed at first, but then he laughed and called the agent "Pinche Migra!" and swear to God, he peeled that snake right there and ate it!

An agent out of Wellton once pulled a classic practical joke on his load of clients out near 25E. One of his boys had been taking potshots in the desert, and he'd plugged a jackrabbit. "Hey," the agent told him, "I've got an idea." He took the big jack and tucked it into some bushes near the road.

Later in the day, he had some Mexicans in the back, and he was tooling along, taking them back to the station holding pens. Suddenly, he stopped the car and said, "Muchachos, un conejo!" A rabbit!

They crowded the front of the cage and said, "Donde?" "Allí, allí.Mira.Es grande!"

They squinted and frowned,but nobody saw no stinking rabbit. "Right there,man!" the agent cried. A vast plain of saguaro and dry brush and ironwood stumps. "I'm going to shoot it," he told them. "I'll show you how good the Migra is with our pistolas." He hopped out of the truck and squeezed off a shot with his pistol.

"Chinga'o! He's shooting!" They flinched. Ducked. He holstered his weapon and got in the truck. "Got him!" he said. "Let's go see."

He drove --- they thought it was fifty yards, maybe. But he drove past that. And then he drove a mile. They were muttering and whistling. Then another mile. Then another damn mile. He pulled up to the saguaro cluster where he'd stashed the carcass, parked again, jumped out and dug the rabbit out of the bushes. He held it up so they could see it.

They cried out in shock and awe. "I told you the Migra were good shots!" he told them. The guys at the station laughed for years about that one.

Drags are created by bundles of five car tires attached to a frame, looking somewhat like the Olympic rings. Every few days, a truck chains a drag to its back end and drives the roads, ironing the sand into a smooth surface. The drags tend to cut east/west. Since the illegals head north,they are forced, sooner or later, to cross a drag. The Devil's Highway itself is the Mother of All Drags.

The fiendish ploys of the Coyotes offer you many opportunities to hone your signcutting skills. The whole game for their team is to pass by invisibly, and the team on this side is paid to see the invisible. The Coyotes score when they make it, and the Migra scores when they don't. Like pro wrestling, there is a masked invader who regularly storms the field to disrupt the game. This, of course, is La Muerte.

The illegals try to leap across the drags, but the drags are often wide enough to make jumpers hit the ground at least once. They walk backward, hoping to confuse cutters.ou have to be good to confuse a veteran. An Indian reservation cop says, "Them trackers can probably tell you what color the guy's hair was,and that he had eighty-nine cents in his left pocket. Then they can tell you the last time he got laid."

Lately, foamers have been walking the desert. Foamers tape blocks of foam rubber to their feet, thus leaving no prints. Or so they think. Foam blocks make small right-angle dents in the soil at their corners. And sooner or later,the heel of the walker will wear through the foam,and the cutter can see a weird pattern, like a small half-moon hoof in a picture frame. Your classic foamer sign.

Every Coyote team relies on the old Apache trick of the brush- out. Last man through walks backward,brushing the tracks away with a branch of some bush. It's such a standard move that Border Patrol agents call giving civilians and media types evasive answers a brush-out. The Washington, D.C., desk jockeys are considered the ultimate brush-out masters.

There is room,in this desert world,for scholarship as well as sport.

Cutters read the land like a text. They search the manuscript of the ground for irregularities in its narration. They know the plots and the images by heart. They can see where the punctua- tion goes. They are landscape grammarians,got the reading dirt.

On lava,a displaced stone will reveal a semicircle of lighter ground underneath. Likewise a pebble kicked out of place on the hardpan, where the desert varnish that accumulates on the ground reveals a crescent of paler sand. In-ground sensors are buried in places known only to the Border Patrol. These sensors are known as Oscars. A Coyote would give his teeth to get hold of this information.

Sometimes, the sensors are very cleverly placed --- their little antennas stick up in the middle of creosote bushes. Cutters know that saguaros, the signature big cactus of the region, always grow among sheltering shrubs. So a stately old saguaro will not only serve as a signpost for the walkers, but a landmark for the cutters, and the landmark has a scribble of handy bushes around it to hide the wire.

When the truck goes by on the drag, the Oscar sends a message to base. Base radios: "Oscar 21?Oscar 21?" The cutter answers, and he's cleared. If base doesn't clear him at his Oscar, he'll call home. "Base, did you catch an Oscar just now?" Oscar 25 follows Oscar 21; Oscar 35 follows Oscar 25. If a cutter vanishes between Oscar 25 and Oscar 35, they know something might be wrong. They go to look for him.If an Oscar bleeps and no cutter is nearby, they know somebody done snuck into the country.

Often the drag will have what Kenny Smith calls "hither thither. "Hither thither is a scrabble of pebbles and twigs and dirt on the clean face of the drag. It's knocked from the tiny berms that the tire drags raise on either side of the road,and they tell you that someone tried to hop over. You look out beyond hither thither for true sign.

Signcutters know most walkers pass between 11:00 at night and 3:00 the next morning. They can tell how old a track is by its sharpness --- even in the desert, dirt holds some humidity, and it is this humidity that definnes the track's edges. As a track ages, it dries, and as it dries, its edges soften. Bug-sign is created when small creatures begin to scurry about just before dawn. Often, this hour is the only comfortable moment of the day, and in a burst of breakfast exuberance, lizards, rats, and insects set off in a willy-nilly marathon.

If bug-sign crosses over a walker's footprint, the cutter knows the walker has passed nearer to midnight than to dawn. If, however, the footstep flattens the bug-sign,the cutter knows the walker has recently passed, and is in the immediate area, and is probably in trouble. The sun is up, the temperature is rising, and the day will only get more brutal.

When the cutter sees criss-crossing sign on the drag, he radios another unit. That agent drives to the next drag north and cuts. If he finds sign, he calls the first unit to leapfrog north to the next drag. He cuts it. Sooner or later, the sign runs out, and they have the walkers boxed in between them.
It's when the walkers get far off the drags that all the trouble starts.

Mike F.'s walkers were not only off the drag, they were off the map.

Kenny Smith was working the trailer trash radio,sending more and more units on the Banzai Run. Everybody was heading out there,every truck that could move. They were even thinking of sending out the water-buffaloes, the big water-tank trucks in the fleet. It was a mad scramble as they raced the heat. From Vidrios Drag, the signcutters started back into the wasteland, cutting,cutting. They started finding corpses. They read the ground and found, after an amazingly long haul, where the journey had all gone so wrong. Some of the illegals had walked over sixty-five miles --- a couple of them fell in sight of the freeway.

All you can do, Kenny Smith said,is cut sign, cut sign, cut sign. The sign tells the story. The sign never lies.

And the whole investigation became a series of drag-cuts. It started after they had found all the dead --- fourteen men; after they had saved the rest --- twelve more. The footprints wrote the story. And after the footprints ran out, it was a trail of whispered stories and paper sheets. It was the big die-off, the largest death- event in border history.

Everybody wanted to know what happened, how it happened. The old boys of Wellton were forever changed by it. The media started calling the dead the Yuma 14. National stories focused on the Devil's Highway as a great metaphor for the horrors of the trail. But the agents who saw it all simply refer to it as "what happened." As in: what happened in May, or what happened in the desert. Nothing fancy.

Somebody had to follow the tracks. They told the story. They went down into Mexico, back in time,and ahead into pauper's graves. Before the Yuma 14, there were the smugglers. Before the smugglers, there was the Border Patrol. Before the Border Patrol, there was the border conflict. Before them all was Desolation itself.

These are the things they carried.

John Doe #36:red underpants,mesquite beans stuck to his skin.

John Doe #37:no effects.

John Doe #38:green socks.

John Doe #39:a belt buckle with a fighting cock inlaid, one wallet in the right front pocket of his jeans.

John Doe #40:no effects.

John Doe #41:fake silver watch,six Mexican coins,one comb, a belt buckle with a spur inlaid,four pills in a foil strip --- possibly Advil, or allergy gelcaps.

John Doe #42:Furor Jeans, "had a colored piece of paper"i n pocket.

John Doe #43:green handkerchief, pocket mirror in right front pocket.

John Doe #44:Mexican bills in back pocket, a letter in right front pocket,a brown wallet in left front pocket.

John Doe #45:no record.

John Doe #46:no record.

John Doe #47:no effects;one tattoo: "Maria."

John Doe #48:Converse knockoff basketball shoes.

John Doe #49:a photo ID of some sort,apparently illegible.

They came to the broken place of the world,and taken all together, they did not have enough items to fill a carry-on bag.

Wellton's Officer Friendly, a Latino who looks Italian, bristles at calling them the Yuma 14. "If anything, they're the Wellton 14," he says. "We found them. Yuma didn't do shit." In Tucson, however, they're considered to be the Tucson 14.

The confusion comes easy. The group entered the United States in Tucson sector, and they were headed for a Tucson sector pickup spot. They just happened to have died in the Yuma sector by accident. Walkers are identified by sector, not station, so the Wellton crew was erased from the headlines. Thus Yuma was forever enshrined as the rescuer of the survivors and the collector of the dead.

There were other claims, too. Coming into the game a little late, Mexico declared the Yuma 14 as folk heroes:after all, Mexico loves a martyr,perhaps as much as it dislikes confronting the catastrophic political malfeasance that forced the walkers to flee their homes and bake to death in the western desert. Human rights activists claimed them, too: Our fourteen murdered brothers! Journalists took them as the hottest story (no pun intended) in many years.

Officer Friendly considered all this a steaming pile of Bravo- Sierra.

They were not only Wellton's bodies, he points out, but there were twenty-six of them, not fourteen. "They're the Wellton 26," he says. "All of them are victims,even the live ones. And they're mine."

Nobody wanted them when they were alive, and now look --- everybody wants to own them.

Their paperwork got processed through Tucson, as well. The dead were given back to Mexico's care through the auspices of the consul's offices in the borderland. The consul of Calexico flew home with the bodies, their first and last trip by airplane; and Tucson's consul, Carlos Flores Vizcarra, collected the files. The death reports went to the groaning shelves of the Tucson consulate. It was all quite routine, with regular patterns, ruts, and observances.

When a fresh death report comes into the consulate building, the women of the consulate light votive candles. Each desk flickers with a small flame. If you didn't know any better, you would think it was a religious observance.

The reports arrive from the officials, so many that it's getting hard to file them. Shelves are stuffed with them, and piles of reports sometimes accumulate on the tabletops. The Yuma 14's documents, like all of the death reports at the consulate, were tucked into accordion folders, cheap manila packets available in any Target or Kmart. The death packets are known as "archives," and harvest season --- May through July --- is known as "death season."

It is then that lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, strawberries are all ready to be picked. Arkansas chickens are ready to be plucked. Cows are waiting in Iowa and Nebraska to be ground into hamburger, and grills are ready in McDonald's and Burger King and Wendy's and Taco Bell for the ground meat to be cooked. KFC is waiting for its Mexican-plucked, Mexican- slaughtered chickens to be fried by Mexicans. And the western desert is waiting, too --- its temperatures soaring, a fryer in its own right.

OTM --- Other Than Mexicans --- covers all the Central and South Americans swelling the ranks of the walkers. Many Americans don't know that Chinese and Russian refugees cross Desolation as well. And Mexican smugglers are now using freighters to run the North American coastline and drop the walkers into Canada,where the rules are lax and the border --- twice the length of the Mexican border --- is even more abandoned.

Middle Eastern operatives look like Mexicans; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they can pass. Muslim missionaries have moved into southern Mexico, often taking up where Christian evangelists have left off. They set up Koranic schools in Indian villages, and in tribes where the children do not even speak Spanish ,they are being taught to read, speak, and write Arabic. Reportedly, the largest al Qaeda training ground in the New World is in Brazil. The Texas and Arizona branches of the Border Patrol have aired suspicions that the smugglers are happy to transport al Qaeda members across the Devil's Highway. In a world of pure capitalism, Osama's crew has the juice: these ultimate OTMs are said to pay fifty thousand dollars apiece.

Of course, the illegals have always been called names other than human --- wetback, taco-bender. (A Mexican worker said: "If I am a wetback because I crossed a river to get here, what are you, who crossed an entire ocean?") In politically correct times, "illegal alien "was deemed gauche, so "undocumented worker" came into favor. Now,however, the term preferred by the Arizona press is "undocumented entrant." As if the United States were a militarized beauty pageant. Maybe it is.

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.

Excerpted from The Devil's Highway © Copyright 2012 by Luis Alberto Urrea. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown. All rights reserved.

The Devil's Highway
by by Luis Alberto Urrea

  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316010804
  • ISBN-13: 9780316010801