Life is tenuous in the desert lands between Yuma, Ariz., and Nogales, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Only the hardiest of plants and animals survive in the relentless, burning sun of the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range. Scattered through the sparse mesquite and the scorpions and rattlers of the Sonoran desert, however, humans now crisscross the land: Mexican villagers walking north from Veracruz or Oaxaca, and La Migra, the U.S. Border Patrol.
Through this inhospitable landscape runs the Devil's Highway, a trail both ancient and painfully contemporary. Known to Aztecs and conquistadors, it's now the busiest passage for Mexicans crossing la frontera to the promise of better wages in El Norte. In May 2001, 14 men died in this desert when their inexperienced guide lost the trail and led them into oblivion. Author Luis Alberto Urrea, who grew up on both sides of the border, delivers the story of the Yuma 14 here in heartbreaking detail.
Urrea brings a poet's sensibility and language to the reporting of an epic investigation, but he doesn't shy away from laying much of the blame on policies written thousands of miles away, both in Washington, D.C., and in Mexico City. When border security tightened in urban areas during the 1990s, northbound walkers moved deeper into the desert. Organized criminal enterprises took over the coyote business, culling high profits from human smuggling. And the Border Patrol picked up the pieces.
This is a beautifully written book about a disturbing topic. It's not an easy read. Urrea details the fine points of drinking urine as a desperate ploy for survival and describes with horrifying precision exactly what happens to a human body during the late stages of hyperthermia. But he writes lyrically of the desert's harsh beauty and shows the humanity of those forced into opposing roles along the Devil's Highway -- both the walkers and the Border Patrol agents who are alternately their enemies and their saviors.
The saddest part of this story is not the fate that befell the Yuma 14, however tragic. It's that conditions have not changed. The Border Patrol reported 154 deaths during 2003, a tragic new record. The economic and political conditions that create and support the business of smuggling human beings remain the same. As long as those conditions continue, El Camino del Diablo will claim more victims.