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The Devil s Highway A True Story 14


  Santos ran out of water. He was out of shape, gasping, cursing under his breath, more frightened than Lauro or Mendez. He wanted a drink. The Guerrero boys didn’t have enough to spare.

  The group was like a machine breaking down, starting to shake itself apart.

  Lorenzo Ortiz Hernandez, a friend of Nahum Landa’s, was sick already. He wanted nothing more than to lie down, but he forced himself ahead in the hope of a resting place. Julian Malaga was twenty-four, in good shape, but he was already slipping. His brother-in-law, Rafael Temich, urged him on. They comforted themselves with thoughts of Chamizal, in the Municipio de Huellapan, home—green leaves, clouds, fog, rain. Women. Rivers. Below them, the sea. They were heading toward the great Growler Wash, a dry watercourse that would mock them with its sandy bed. The only possible sources of water in this direction were all dry—Spains Well, White Well, Monreal Well. Even if they’d held water, they were far away, and lost in the wilderness, small blue dots in a vast empty map.

  Among them, Hilario, the first to run out of water, managed to march on, his mysterious strength carrying him through his thirst.

  Mendez lost what sense of direction he had left. Perhaps it was the exhaustion. Perhaps it was the heat. Once he took them out of the detour, it’s as though he surrendered to fate: he gave up all pretense of breaking through the Growlers, and he went straight west. No attempt to cut north or east at all, as if Ajo had suddenly been abandoned. He started a suicidal hike toward Yuma.

  He got less than ten miles before his inner compass fell apart completely.

  He veered left, as was his tradition. But then, around eight o’clock, he made a radical turn to the south. All of them followed after him like zombies. Each water bottle emptied on the walk, until even Guerrero was dry. Their bottles marked their path in pale plastic that would gradually soften in the heat.

  The group’s sign was a scatter of slips and trips, falls and minor one-man detours. There was no thinking evident, no reasoning process at all. Mendez walked, and his herd followed. They were now going in the exact opposite direction that they had come. Forming a vast inverted U shape twenty miles wide. Mendez clearly had no idea what he was doing.

  Sometime during that confused march, the walkers in the rear realized how lost they were. They wanted to quit, but to quit was to die. Perhaps it was Santos who saw the simple solution. They had left tracks. The tracks led, sooner or later, back to Mexico. Mexico! All they had to do was turn around and walk back the way they had come.

  It was a long shot. The walk this far had almost killed them. And Mexico was just more desert and thirst. But the walk ahead was certain to kill them. And, if they could just get back to Bluebird Pass, they could somehow go in to Ajo, or be found by the Migra. Somebody would find them.

  “I want to live!” Santos said.

  Who doesn’t want to live, pendejo?

  “Let’s go back,” Santos insisted. “Let’s all just turn around. We can make it. I know we can make it.”

  Mendez refused.

  The walkers who saw this conflict did not know what to do. Although Mendez had clearly gotten them lost, he was the leader. He was in good shape. He was some kind of bigwig chingón in the guía group, whereas Santos was a chubby underling, some weak little man they did not respect. Still, he had a point.

  You’ll die.

  They listened to Mendez. It was like choosing a pickup soccer team. Santos led his small mutiny, calling for anyone with the balls to walk back the way they had come. Calling for anyone who wanted to live. He wasn’t lying anymore, he was telling the truth: the only sure way through the desert now was to follow their own tracks and try to repair the damage. There was one path, and it led backward.

  Accounts vary. Either three or five men stepped up. The Santos team.

  I’m going home.

  We’re almost there, man.

  I don’t care. I’m going back.

  Go.

  I will.

  Fine. Go.

  Santos, expedition leader. They turned around and walked away. Mendez was disgusted with the fat man. He didn’t care to watch him walk away. Some of the walkers watched, torn with fear and worry, unsure what they should do. But they weren’t quitters. Men didn’t quit. Hombres. Machos. Viva Veracruz. Viva Guerrero.

  Desolation swallowed Santos and his crew.

  No trace of them has ever been found.

  SUNDAY, MAY 20—9:00 P.M. NINETY DEGREES.

  Mendez walked, they followed.

  Men were falling behind. Rafael Temich was worried—he’d lost sight of two companions.

  “I said, ‘Hey, I think we lost two guys back there.’ He just said, ‘They can suck my cock. Those guys were dumb assholes before they ever came out here. If they’re lost, that’s their problem. Not mine.’”

  Temich wouldn’t forget the comment.

  The two lost walkers managed to rejoin the group.

  They had been walking now for about thirty hours with a short break the night before.

  Once again, they stumbled to a stop.

  Everything was repeating itself.

  They had wandered into another labyrinth of mountains, the Granites. The group looked up in the eerie dark at peaks that could have been the peaks they had walked away from hours ago. Men fell down, crawled on the ground, slammed their faces into the dirt. Cursed. Prayed. They sank into their agonies, silent. Slept the dreamless sleep of the beaten.

  Not again.

  Where’s the fucking rain this time?

  “We’ll rest,” Mendez said.

  He collapsed on the ground. “A few more miles,” he said.

  Come morning, it would be time to die.

  11

  Their Names

  I will never forget the sadness in my nephew’s eyes when he looked at me, shedding tears, and I was unable to do anything except to tell him not to die.“

  José de Jesú Rodriguez was mad; this was his first trip to the United States, and it was going tobe his last damned trip if he had anything to say about it.

  Enrique Landeros Garcí was thirty years old when he got lost. He’d come from the coffee village of San Pedro Altepepan. He was walking for his wife, Octavia, even though she didn’t that—twenty–three years old. And he was walking for his son, Alexis. Alexis had cried,“Daddy, don’t go” but, he said, I want to change our lives. Surely, Octavia would allow him the dignity of trying just once to make things better. But Enrique didn’t have the money to pay for the trip. Don Moi was asking 1,739 pesos. Where was he supposed to get that much money? But Don Moi had a way—there was always a way. The Chespiro Network got on the phones and took up a collection: operators were standing by. Enrique nailed a loan, payable upon employment.

  Octavia put up a fuss. Enrique didn’t know what to do. All he had was a new pair of cowboy boots. What’s that to a family? So, on the day he was to jump in a pickup and ride down to Don Moi’s bus, he put on his fancy boots and told Octavia he was going to market with the boys, and he’d be home that night.

  Once he got to the pickup site, in Martinez de la Torre, he took off the boots and pulled an old pair of sneakers out of his bag. He entrusted his beloved boots to a friend. He asked him to take the boots to Octavia in the morning. She’d understand what he’d done. He didn’t make it to Enrique’s house for two days. By then, she had already figured it out, but she hoped for the best—maybe he was only drunk, or seeing a friend.

  When she saw the boots, she started to cry. She hugged the boots as if they were Enrique himself, and they gave up their smell of leather. Then she told Alexis that Daddy was gone.

  Reyno Bartolo Hernandez was thirty-seven. He was Enrique’s compa from San Pedro. Coffee farmer. Married for nineteen years to Agustina. Don Moi’s operation lent him eighteen hundred dollars. He wore green pants and matching green socks, Agustina’s gesture to make sure he looked nice for when he got to his job.

  Another San Pedro paisano was Lorenzo Ortiz Hernandez. He and his wife, Juana, had fiv
e children, aged from three to twelve. Juana was thirty-four years old, and she was ready to bear more babies. The others were proud of him for making so many heirs. The kids were deeply into the ages when they needed things, things he couldn’t afford for them. If the coffee prices hadn’t dropped, they were his own small plantation staff. But no coffee money, no money at all. The other boys were signing up with Moi. He decided to try his luck.

  He borrowed seventeen hundred dollars at 15 percent interest.

  Reymundo Barreda Maruri was still plugging away with Reymundo Jr. Even though he was fifty-six, the grandpa of the group, he was not going to stop. As hope failed, he had the impetus of saving his boy to drive him. Reymundo Jr. was suffering, flushed, and stumbling. The father held up the son.

  At the last minute, his brother Rigoberto had decided not to come along. Well, thank God for that much. Reymundo would be trying to save two lives then. And to think, the last thing he had done right before they left Sonoita was to call his daughter Minerva to tell her everything was great.

  Reymundo had once come to the United States to work, but it had been nothing like this. He had worked at a cannery in Ohio, and then done migrant harvesting at a Mississippi ranch. Unlike many of his cohorts, he had been working for wages when Mexico’s economic crisis had hit him, working for Coca-Cola, Presidente Fox’s old company, when the plant laid off its workers.

  And here came Nahum Landa Ortiz. The Ortiz boys and the Hernandez boys and some of the other boys were related in the ten thousand ways men who come from small mountain villages are related. Nahum kept going. He never stopped going.

  José Antonio Bautista, Nahum’s nephew, was furious. He hated Mendez for the trouble they were in. Later, he would say, “With enchantments and deceptions, they led us.”

  Edgar Adrian Martinez was young, sixteen. He was from Cuautepec, and his girlfriend was named Claudia Reyes. He was walking for her as much for anybody else. His last words to Claudia had been, “I’ll work five years and come home and marry you.” His father said, “He said … ‘I just have to get there. I just have to get there.’ ”

  Edgar walked with his uncle, José Isidro Colorado. His godfather, Victor Flores Badillo, walked beside them. As long as they were together, they were sure they could survive the ordeal. They reminded Edgar to think of Claudia.

  Edgar had worked with Reymundo at the Coke plant. Perhaps it was Reymundo who put the idea of the walk in his head. Edgar had been paid eight dollars a day to wash and stack returned bottles. When he could augment this salary with picking coffee beans, he made four dollars a day on his days off.

  He told his uncle, “I’m going to build Claudia a house.”

  Mario Castillo was a twenty-five-year-old coffee and citrus plantation worker. It was a reasonable thing to imagine a job in Florida, picking more oranges. He was one of the few who had been in the United States illegally in the past. He had lived and worked in Galena, Illinois, for an eight-month stretch. But the pinche INS and the cabrones of the Migra found him out and shipped him home. Home! There was nothing at home.

  His wife, Irma Vazquez Landa, was related to Nahum. She waited in Veracruz with two children. They were five and six. Mario dreamed of building them a house and breaking away somewhat from his parents’ help. If he could get a small house built, then he hoped to open a tiny bodega, a store where people could buy some of those Cokes the other boys bottled. Some cigarettes, lottery tickets, candy, stamps. Maybe a couple of those scary crime magazines.

  Irma could make tortas for the lunch crowds.

  He borrowed nineteen hundred dollars for the walk.

  Claudio Marin and Heriberto Tapia and Javier Santillan walked with Lauro. Javier was falling behind. The heat was melting his brain. He was slowly going crazy, babbling weird things. They didn’t think he knew where he was or what they were doing.

  Rafael Temich González was a quiet twenty-eight-year-old corn farmer from Apixtla. He looked severe, almost Aztec or Maya in his features. But he had an easy smile and was quick to laugh. He had good manners, and he talked with his hands: when asked a question he didn’t know the answer to, he’d put his hand before his mouth, palm out, and shrug, “I don’t know.”

  Rafael lived in a thatch-roofed home on a dirt road. You had to be careful in these grass and palm frond houses—scorpions and killer banana spiders could fall out of the fronds. Huge tropical roaches and beetles fell on you in your sleep like warm rain in some of the infested homes. Small lizards—cachorras—ran the walls, licking up the mosquitoes and slower bugs.

  In this hut, Rafael took care of an extended family. Along with his wife and year-old daughter, he supported his mother, two sisters, and their four daughters. All of them slept together in the house.

  He had gone on ahead of the rest of them, trying to get to relatives in the Carolinas. He took a bus to Mexico City, and another bus to Altar. There, he called his brother in North Carolina, then tried to get a Coyote. “But nobody wanted to take us. So we went on to Sonoita.” His brother recommended El Negro, and El Negro’s safe house for cheap food and lodging. “I traveled for about ten days.”

  Julian Ambros Malaga could take it. He was a healthy twenty-four-year-old former soldier. He was sure he could handle cross-country forced marches. He was so sure he could take whatever the desert threw at him that he wanted his teenage cousin to join him. The family put a stop to that. He was Rafael Temich’s brother-in-law and they had come here together.

  Julian wore his favorite good-luck red-striped soccer jersey. He was planning to make money to build cement walls for his mother’s house. He was recently married, and he and his wife were expecting a child that October.

  His father said Julian had promised to “always behave with respect,” and that he would do nothing to cost his father his feelings of pride.

  He had a note from his bride in his pocket.

  The crazy González Manzano brothers walked together. Isidro, Mario, Efraín. They were the Hidalgo contingent. Viva Verde Rico! This whole deal was working out badly—hell, they’d been busted, deported, shoved around, and now they were being dragged all over this hellhole desert. By God, they were going to get their damned money back! Still, they walked like men. They’d show these poor Veracruz boys how to walk. All for one.

  Mario was heading for Lake Pleasant, Florida. He’d been there before. He couldn’t believe it was such a bitch trying to get back.

  Javier García was a pip. A compact little fellow with big whiskers and a balding dome, he was a joker. Everything was funny. Even dying seemed funny to him, as long as he wasn’t the one dying. “Dead?” he told the sheriffs. “Whew! I saw twenty dead!” He laughed until he cried. He’d stumbled onto the trip—no real plan in mind—after he’d found the men getting ready at the safe house. “I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a million lowlife hotels in Sonoita. I just saw the group and joined in.”

  Just lucky—it made him giggle.

  And who was Lauro? Some scrub. Mendez was the closest thing he had to a friend out there, and Mendez didn’t even know his real name.

  12

  Broken Promise

  MONDAY, MAY 21.

  The long night of Sunday, May 20, convinced even Mendez that they were all going to die. He could no longer tell them that they had a few more miles to go, because even the stupidest among them, even in their worsening states of confusion, each knew they were only going nowhere. They were at the bottom of their southern march, pointed directly at the Mexican border, yet miles away from it. Even if they had walked those miles, they would have died in Mexican wastes. Once he saw the sun come up on Monday morning, Mendez knew there was no hope. Dawn was easy enough: sun is east; keep it on your right side and you’re going north. Noon, however, was a daily bafflement. Dusk and darkness were indecipherable.

  What happened next is still debated among them. Mendez has told different versions. The survivors tell different versions. The lawyer tells a version, and the Migra tells a version.


  Mendez called them together.

  Or they called Mendez to their meeting.

  Mendez told them they were doomed unless he went to get help for them.

  Or they told Mendez they were doomed if he did not go find help.

  He told them he could make it to water, and possibly to help. It would be better if he went alone: he could move quicker.

  No, he took his partner.

  All right, then two were better than the big group. Two definitely had a better chance.

  Those two chickenshits planned the whole time to book out of there and save their asses.

  Or the members of the group told Mendez he had to save them and go alone to find water. And then, at the last second, he said he’d take Lauro.

  He was afraid Lauro might die soon without help.

  They pressed their money on him and asked him to get water, to get a vehicle and a driver.

  Or he demanded money to save them.

  Or he extorted money so he’d have funds for himself after he saved himself and left them to die.

  They said, “Take all we have.”

  Or he said, “Give me all you have.”

  They collected seventy dollars.

  They collected ninety dollars.

  Or they collected two hundred dollars.

  Or he stole three hundred dollars.

  The money confuses more than the terrain, more than the hyperthermia. Versions of the dollar amount, and what the dollars implied, never end.

  Mendez: “The people asked me and the other guide to go and get water for them, and they donated ninety dollars to us. Actually, they gave it to Lauro. I never touched the money.”

  U.S. Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service Report of Investigation, Case Number YUM200105000-002, page two, quotes Rafael Temich:

  “The group offered to pay the guides $70.00 U.S. Dollars to bring them water but the guides demanded $200.00 Dollars more. When the two guides started to leave together the group asked one of them to stay with them and not to go. Rafael did not know how much money the group had given the two guides. ( … ) Monday the guides left and never came back.”