The Devil’s Highway

“In the desert, we are all illegal aliens”

This is the story of a group of twenty six men who set out to cross the Mexican-US border in May 2001. Twelve reached the other side. 

They people left their families and their villages, took loans and paid large sums to smugglers (called coyotes), to get them across in the hopes of finding a better life. Things did not go as planned. Their journey is not an outlier. This devastating account explores every single step of that journey. 

It reads like a novel, bringing to life the imagery of families, homes, landscapes, the routine of border patrol, the search and rescue operations and more. One can see everything, hear everything; it’s written for the senses, bringing you into the moment and making it uncomfortably real. We are on the ground, feet dragging through the sand, baking in the heat, right alongside these doomed souls. It is gripping, suspenseful, terrifying and heartbreaking.

The story traverses the villages from which these men set out, the bus ride they took across their country to get to the border – the first, longest and only trip they’ll ever take out of their home towns, to arrive and be herded into tiny motel rooms – whole groups squashed into a single room with a single slop bucket in the corner. From here, they will set out on a nightmare. A single mistake, a wrong turn in the desert means disaster. 

For Mendez (real name Jesus), becoming a coyote meant moving up in the world, making more money, not being just a bricklayer never making ends meet. On the other side, we meet members of the border patrol – the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue (Borstar) whose job it is to catch the immigrants just as much as it is to save the lives of those who have barely survived the gruelling ordeal of crossing the desert on foot. We learn what it entails to track the ‘walkers,’ known as sign-cutting, which means looking for footprints, for discarded water bottles, for bits of clothing caught on a dry branch, for examining how prints were brushed away in an attempt to conceal which direction the walkers were headed in. And when they’re found, they are rounded up and processed. Those who are alive are shipped back across the border, likely to try this death-trip once again. Those who don’t are processed by photos, files, identifying markers, zipped into body bags with their meagre belongings; the sheer destitution and dashed dreams slaughtered by the sun. 

The author employs the local colloquial language, all colour and texture. It is absolutely absorbing. I couldn’t put this book down. A six pages description of the stages of death by heat is blood-curdling – heat stress, heat fatigue, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke – the flimsiness of the human body in the face of the elements. 

It is a searing indictment of border policy, how the number of jobs outsizes the number of immigrants, of how they earn meagre amounts where tax is shaved off the top, but of course they can never apply for a tax refund. If they are to go home and visit their families, they must embark on this odyssey across the desert once again, and then again to come back to work. 

Originally published in 2004, this tragically still reads like it’s the story of those at the border today. 

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