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The Devil's Highway: A True Story
Luis Alberto Urrea
The Devil s Highway A True Story 15
Francisco Morales Jimenez remembers Mendez asking him, “Got any dollars?”
“No, no,” he replied. “I’m only carrying pesos.
” “Oh yeah? I’m not going to walk if it’s for pesos.”
He demanded two hundred dollars.
José Antonio Bautista, from the town of Equimite, gave Mendez ten dollars. His uncle Reymundo Barreda Sr. probably had more money on him than the rest of them and he handed sixty dollars over to the Coyotes. Thirty for him and thirty dollars for his already dying son. Bautista recalls a hand reaching into the group and giving Mendez a twenty dollar bill, but he can’t remember whose hand it was.
There’s the ninety dollars.
Mendez, again: “We never imagined that the temperatures would be so high. So then the illegals asked me and my companion to go for water and they gave us ninety dollars to buy the water, because we didn’t have any money on us.”
No money. That part is true: guías seldom carried money. Like the bad clothes, the lack of money would serve to disguise them should they be arrested. A guy in new Air Jordans and a Kangol hat, with a roll of Benjamins in his pocket, would be sent on the express train to the holding cell. So Mendez had been broke. But he didn’t stay broke for long.
The Border Patrol’s “Operation Broken Promise” report: “The two guides collected money from the group and told them they were going to get water. They told the group to wait in this location and abandoned the group.”
United States Attorney Paul K. Charlton, “Proffer of Factual Basis in the matter of United States of America v. Jesus Lopez-Ramos”:
“The group’s condition deteriorated dramatically ( … ). The aliens began to consume cactus and their own urine in an attempt to sustain themselves and to fend off the effects of heat exposure and dehydration. As individual members weakened and succumbed, the group splintered into several smaller groups. During the evening of May 21, 2001, several group members demanded that Jesus Lopez-Ramos depart their location in search of water and transportation for those that remained alive. Lopez-Ramos agreed, collected $90.00 from the group’s members, then set out with ‘Lauro’ ( … ) to locate water.”
Well, the men say they met at dawn, not evening.
The INS official press release reverses this testimonial and has Mendez collecting the money and leaving, and then the group begins to succumb to the heat, to fall apart into disparate groups, and to die.
Mario González remembers: “We hit it and we hit it and we hit it again. When we were all dying, we told them, ‘Don’t be nasty you assholes. Go get us some water.’ ”
Maximino Hilario remembers the Coyotes demanding money, but he doesn’t know how much. Mario González adds that the walkers did ask Mendez to go for water, but that Mendez rejected all pesos. It was only the long green for Mendez. Francisco Morales says Mendez only collected ninety dollars of that cash, but that he did demand it, and that he put it in his pocket: Lauro never touched it. José Isidro Colorado Huerta saw Mendez take a hundred dollars.
Nobody, then, can agree on how much, or how it was collected, or by whom, or for what reason, or when. The stated purpose was, of course, rescue. Later legal wrangling would focus on the fiendish plot of Mendez. Coyotes always collected the money from their pollos before leaving them to die. They always said they were going for help. They always said they would be back shortly, then failed to return. They always demanded dollars. Why not? They were going to Phoenix to smoke dope and pick up hookers. Pesos would mark them and be beneath the gangsters’ level of cool.
What made Mendez different? In the eyes of law enforcement and the prosecutors, there was nothing. Nothing at all. Mendez walked like a duck and quacked like a duck.
For his part, Mendez—if he told the truth—found himself in a Twilight Zone episode. The only thing he could argue, forever, was that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. All the evidence, all the known history of the region, all the collected cop intelligence on Coyote MO’s pointed Mendez out to be a killer. Hey, he said, just this once, all the evidence is wrong.
Whatever happened, for whatever reason, it happened at dawn on May 21.
One thing was certain: Mendez was getting sick of their bullshit. He was scared, worried, even embarrassed. But he was tired of their insults and their surliness. They called him “asshole.” They’d started to buck him, all these older men making him feel like a little kid. Those González brothers—chinga’o.
Rafael Temich kept asking, “How much longer?”
All last night, he’d been asking it.
“How much longer?”
Temich didn’t believe him.
The González brothers didn’t believe him, either.
I know what I’m doing.
Oh, yeah—you knew what you were doing last week, too.
You got us busted, asshole.
I can get you out of here.
Right. Ha ha.
Don’t expect us to pay you.
Wait till we tell Negro. Chespiro’s going to ream your ass, Rockero-boy!
The other men sneered and snickered when the González clan called him out. Old Reymundo. He yelled at Mendez.
You’re killing my son.
I didn’t kill anybody. I’m saving you.
What do you think I’m doing?
Walking in circles like a pendejo, that’s what you’re doing.
All right, Reymundo Sr. was in a panic over his son. But still, Mendez did not dig it when the old-timer snapped at him like that. What did they think he was, their maid? Mendez was in charge, not these lowlife wetbacks.
He stood there. They stood around him. The meeting, no matter which set of details you choose, had the same outcome:
“How much longer?” Temich demanded.
“Look, you said three hours last night. We’ve walked more than three hours, and we’re nowhere near a town!”
“Three more hours, and we’re there.”
“If it’s three hours, then you go. We won’t make it.”
“It’s probably two hours.”
Reymundo Sr. blew: “You said it would be right over the mountains. We went over the mountains. We never got there. We won’t ever get there. We’ll go all night, and morning will come, and we still won’t be at the highway. We won’t ever get there!”
Rafael Temich says Mendez would only go if they gave him two hundred dollars.
Each dollar bill that went into the Coyotes’ pockets was another augmentation of the federal counts that waited, like the mythical cool water, at the far end of the trail.
They gave Lauro a hard time, too.
You’d better come back for us.
We’ll find you.
Yeah, yeah. Fork it over, man. Talk is cheap.
“I will come back for you,” Mendez promised.
Rafael Temich: “I said, ‘Why don’t one of you go, and the other stay here with us?’ And they said, ‘No. We’ll both go.’ We all cooperated. We all gave money because we couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Once they had pocketed the funds, they told the walkers to wait where they were. All things being equal, if the land were flat and easy, they were approximately fifteen miles north of the Mexican border, twenty miles on a diagonal from where they entered the United States, twenty miles from Ajo, nearly forty miles from I-8. They were buried in the Granite Mountains. But all things were not equal. Surrounding them were the Aguila Mountains, the Mohawk Mountains, the Sierra Pinta, the Bryan Mountains, the Antelope Hills, the Crater Range.
Mendez told them to wait, and he’d be back with water and help. Those with watches checked them.
“I’ll be here in five hours,” he told them. “Stay here or I won’t be able to find you.”
“Five hours, right.”
“He’ll be back in five hours.”
“Five hours,” Mendez said. “No longer.”
Everyone agreed—five hours—they could make it that long.
Some say Mendez and Lauro had a little water; some say they did not.
The men looked for what shade they could find.
Mendez and Lauro marched north.
—Nahum Landa Ortiz
The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.
Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.
A week later, it was eight o’clock.
The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.
They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.
“Just a little longer.”
Their arms were too heavy to lift. They couldn’t get their watches up to their eyes. The heat was heavy. The sunlight weighed a thousand pounds.
Their mouths were as dry as the soles of their feet: their tongues were hard and dense and did not want to bend. They sucked and sucked at the insides of their mouths, but they couldn’t raise any spit.
Reymundo Jr. was sick—his body was cooking from within. His father tried to shade him with his body.
“Does anybody have any water? I need water for my boy.”
Mendez didn’t appear.
Noon: no shadows.
“Where are the pinches Coyotes?”
The temperature was ninety-five degrees in the shade.
Mendez didn’t appear.
Some of them were fainting, melting on the burning gravel.
“I want to go home.”
Mendez didn’t appear.
A voice cried out: “I don’t want to die!”
Mendez didn’t appear.
“How long are we going to wait?”
It was obvious to some of them that Mendez was never coming back. A few of the boys didn’t want to hear it—if Mendez didn’t come back, then surely they were doomed. It might have been Nahum who told them if they didn’t walk then they were all guaranteed to die. Right there. It was their choice.
Julian Malaga turned to Rafael Temich, his brother-in-law.
“Rafael,” he said. “Look, this place is completely desolate. Where are we supposed to walk? We don’t know where we’re going. Let’s wait for the guides to come back.”
Rafael Temich says, “But of course, they didn’t come back.”
They agreed to stick together and walk north. All of them. It had to be north. Mendez had gone north, the bastard, and he was saving himself. They’d follow Mendez.
Once more, the men stood, and they walked.
José de Jesús Rodriguez: “They never came back. Those fuckers left us hanging in that incredible heat.”
Now the illegals were cutting for sign.
They walked. They walked. There was no other story: they walked.
They said cholla cactus looked like trees covered in spike balls.
The group started to break apart as the demons and angels started to sing. They could smell their own stench. It was embarrassing. It was frightening.
Nahum Landa Ortiz: “We kept walking. We were walking all day in that fucking desert, going under trees. That’s when they started dying. When we got to the trees.”
Men stumbled away toward illusions in the brutal light. Men thought they were home, walking into their front doors, hugging their wives, making love. Still, they walked. Men were swimming. Men were killing Mendez. Men were on the beach, collecting shells and watching their children splash. Their women stood naked before them, soft bellies, hands on ribs, breasts. Men hid their faces from a furious God. And they walked.
A voice was heard in the light-shatter, saying, “He’s going to die. Lay him down here and let him die. Keep walking.”
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 a silent as a graveyard out there. Just the crunch and slide, crunch and slide, of endless hopeless footsteps. Hundreds of footsteps. Crunch. Slide. Gasping: that was the sound. Gasping and sobbing and coughing and heartbeats. Canta y no llores! The ragged breathing of those walking beside them made the men cringe. Stop to piss: piss in cupped hands, lick every hot smear of it from your fingers. If they weren’t trying to save themselves, they would piss in each others’ mouths. Sacrament. Communion. Oh God, in Thy dwelling place, hear our pleas. Hearts drumming, soft hammers inside them, dull fuzzy banging, faster and faster. Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death, amen. El tuca-tucatucanazo! WINGS ABOVE THEM. BLUE MEN. WHITE TEETH. NOTHING. EMPTY NOTHING EMPTY BONES EMPTY HEAT NOTHING BUT SUN EMPTY NOTHING.
And Mendez and Lauro walked. They were way ahead of the group, making good time. They had hope—if no one else had hope, they did. Go north, man. Go north. The freeway had to be right there. Right there! Water and a ride. It is possible they thought they’d find help for the lost walkers behind them.
But damn, those cabrones lagged! Trying to get that group moving, and moving fast, was impossible. The two of them, even sick, even dizzy, were moving like a race car compared to those slowpokes they left behind.
And why were they behind? Because they were dying. No question of that. It crossed their minds, it had to cross their minds: the walkers were going to be dead by the time they got help, if they got help. By the time they got to Mohawk, got drinks, caught a ride, phoned the Cercas gang, got help, went back. They’d all be dead. What was the point? Mendez and Lauro: they were prepared for the desert, and the walkers were not.
Did they debate it? Did Lauro urge Mendez to just walk away? Those guys called us assholes! We did all we could. Look at us—heroes! And if we get caught, then what? Jail? Prison? Deportation? For a bunch of dead guys?
“Keep walking,” Mendez said.
“I am walking,” said Lauro.
The Trees and the Sun
The men Mendez left behind walked. Five of them climbed a peak to look for lights. There, they saw a lone Migra truck patrolling in the far desert. They ran down the mountain, falling, scraping their hands, but there was no way to reach him.
They made it to some scraggly mesquites. It was a hurricane of sunlight, and like storm victims, the men hugged the hot trunks, clutched the trees to keep out of the killer sun, even tied themselves to the trees. Nahum remembers them going out, one man per tree, the group widening and dispersing as the men sought shade. Each alone, in the awful silence, hanging on with what little strength they had left. And then the gibbering and wailing began.
Francisco Morales: “I don’t remember exactly what the days were. But it was in those days, during those days, between Monday and Thursday? When it happened. Monday? Did they start to die on Monday?”
According to the Border Patrol, it had taken the men twelve hours to walk ten miles. They walked for what few miles they could before nightfall, Monday. Survivo
rs report that about fifteen of the men had thorns in their feet. They had trouble walking, and they were having trouble dealing with the pain of their injuries. Some of the men tried to do healings on the feet of the injured.
With their last vestiges of reason, they decided to set a wild-fire. The area they were in had bountiful dried brush, dead grass, creosote, buffel grass, the occasional tumbleweed. They knew enough to remember they were either in, or near, a national park habitat of some sort. They didn’t know what it was, but they knew it meant Feds. They thought the little airplanes that maddeningly flickered in the distance might see the fire and call it in.
A couple of the boys were smokers. What they wouldn’t give for a cigarette now! A cigarette! With this dry mouth? Estan locos. Some could still muster up the energy to bitch and even make small jokes. And the smokers had their little plastic cigarette lighters. Andale! Hope was at hand.
Those who could, started to gather kindling.
Reymundo Jr. was desperately ill. He lay in the dirt, cold to the touch and moaning. Edgar Martinez, from Cuautepec, was sick, too. He stared at nothing. Abraham Morales Hernandez, in his black pants, was cooked half to death. His white tennis shoes were like two small ghosts in the scrub. He was fading in and out.
The strong ones got the brush piled up and clicked the lighters a couple of times.
“Come on, cabrón, light!”
A flicker. A flame. It started to burn.
The fire leaped up and out, and they scuttled back from it as it lit up the hillside. Sparks whirled into the sky, blended with the stars. It crackled. It was hot, the one thing they didn’t need. But they didn’t mind. It was immense and brilliant in the dark! A beacon!
They had saved themselves.
By dawn, the fires were sputtering, the ash gave up thin ribbons of smoke. They waited. Waiting again. It was all suffering and waiting. Their whole lives.
No airplane veered toward them. No helicopter came. No Migra.
Nahum knew it then. The Guerrero boys knew it. Reymundo Barreda Sr. knew it. They were dead.