The Devil s Highway A True Story 16

  They secretly eyed each other, wondering who would be the first to fall. They prayed that they’d live. Or they prayed to die, as long as their brothers, nephews, uncles, sons might live.


  It was the high spike of the heat wave. The temperatures burned up through the nineties with the sunrise. By midmorning, it was 100 degrees. By noon, 105. By two o’clock, it was 108 degrees.

  They walked.

  Nahum Landa Ortiz: “I didn’t watch the first ones die. Two died apart from us. They were behind us and I didn’t see them die.”

  He says the guides took five men with them when they left. But they didn’t. The group was fracturing, and small cells were moving into the landscape on their own. Francisco Morales says, “We started throwing things away. We were going to die. We threw away the things in our pockets in despair.”

  Edgar Martinez, who didn’t have a phone at home, who had to be reached if anyone called through the phone booth in Cuautepec, a village with the name “Hill of the Eagle,” middle name Adrian, nephew of José Isidro Colorado, in love with Claudia Reyes, son of Eugenio, stumbled. He righted himself and put out a hand and fell into a bush. He got to his knees, grimaced as if smiling. Perhaps he was ashamed to be falling. He was sixteen years old.

  He reached a point registered on GPS coordinates as N. 32.21.85/W. 113.18.93.

  He fell again. He closed his eyes. He didn’t rise. He lay there for the length of the next day, lost in a delirium no one can even imagine, burning and burning.

  Not a mile from Edgar, Abraham Morales tripped and hit the ground. He crawled, rolled on his side, kicked. His eyes were red. He was at N. 32.21.85/W. 113.18.94.

  Nobody seemed to know him, for when they finally came and collected his body, he would lie neither claimed nor identified for a month, alone on his icy drawer.

  Francisco Morales: “I do not know who was dying or how many because I too was dying.”

  José de Jesús Rodriguez: “That day, at three in the afternoon, I was dead. What time is it right now—it is four o’clock. Yes, I died. I was dead from three o’clock to four o’clock. I revived and came back from the dead at eleven o’clock at night.”

  Morales adds: “We were walking like robots.”

  They could not bury their dead. There is some evidence they didn’t know who was dead, since they were all falling and fainting, and those who were awake didn’t always know what they were seeing.

  They walked three, perhaps four miles farther. Men collapsed. It looked like more deaths were inevitable. Five of them decided to go ahead and see what they could find. Perhaps they’d find Mendez. Or the way. Anything.

  “Wait for us,” they said, but some of the men were already unconscious, and nobody really said anything to them.

  Wait. Hell, they’d already waited.

  “When we got sick,” José Bautista says, “there was no shade. So I crawled up to hide in the rocks. One of the boys went crazy and started jumping up and down. He started screaming, ‘Mama! Mama! I don’t want to die!’ He ran up to a big cactus and started smashing his face against it. I don’t know what his name was.”

  Nahum and his companions were hiding in the trees.

  A voice carried on the still air, crying, “Mother, save me!”

  Mario González Manzano and his brother Isidro, far ahead on their attempt to find rescue, watched their brother walk away, in search of escape.

  “Somebody said the freeway was right there, right over the hills,” he said. “They lied.”

  Isidro and Mario were in luck: they found some prickly pears—tuna in Spanish. “We ate the tunas to stay alive,” Mario says.

  The liquid in the cactus fruits spared him. He would only see dead bodies when he got to a Border Patrol truck and saw them stacked inside.

  The sign of the dead could be ghastly and haunting. One of the men tore off his shirt and tried to bury himself. The hither thither he left all around him showed violent kicking and arm flailing, as if he were swimming. He managed to get the top half of his torso buried in the ground, where he either smothered or passed out. The relentless heat baked him, literally cooking him in the ground. His face bloated and came loose from the bones, tender as barbecued pork.

  Reymundo Jr. collapsed in his father’s arms. Reymundo Sr. held him as he died. Shook him, cried over him. He called for help, but the only thing that might have helped his son was water.

  When Reymundo died and slid from his father’s arms, his father lurched away into the desert, away from the trees, crying out in despair. Some of the men said he took the American money he had saved for their trip and tore it into small bits.

  Julian Ambros Malaga was also said to have torn up his money. His brother-in-law, Rafael Temich, after being prodded by Julian to walk and save himself, was helpless to save him. “That’s when he took out his money and started tearing it apart. And he took off alone and I also was demented. I was demented. I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t carry him. Then he threw himself into the sunlight, and that’s where he stayed.”

  Old Reymundo also threw himself into the sunlight. He was shouting and crying and throwing money into the air, and he walked until he fell, trying to swim in the dirt as if he’d fallen into a cool stream.

  Nobody knows the name of the man who took off all his clothes. It was madness, surely. He removed his slacks, folded them, and put them on the ground. Then he took off his underwear, laid it neatly on the pants. He removed his shirt and undershirt and squared them away with the pants. As if he didn’t want to leave a mess. His shoes had the socks tucked in them. They were placed on the clothes to keep them from blowing away.

  He lay on his back and stared into the sun until he died.

  Later, Kenny Smith, from Wellton Station, said, “This poor guy just crossed his ankles and went to sleep.”

  Nahum Landa’s testimony reads like modern poetry:

  We were in the trees, trying to hide from the sun.

  And they would yell to me, there’s a guy dead over here. And there’s a guy dead over here.

  There must have been thirty of us out there, and twenty of us died.

  By Monday we were all dead.

  I was hiding under that tree.

  Out there, I saw people in despair.

  I saw them without water.

  I don’t know why I survived.

  Maybe it’s a miracle.

  Some of them just died of desperation.

  Some of them went insane.

  Some of them lost their minds.

  You could hear them screaming.

  Some fell all alone.

  I heard one guy screaming, daring the Border Patrol to come find him.

  Stupid things like that.

  He was desperate.

  He started singing.

  We were drinking urine.

  We were ripping open cactus.

  Some of the boys were saying you could cut the thirst with a cactus.

  The majority of them died that day.

  I was going to die this morning.

  I have spines from these pinches cactuses all over me.



  Mendez and Lauro stumbled. Lauro was sick. He kept muttering that he couldn’t go on. No, man, Mendez told him. No way—you’re not dying now. We’re there. We’re there. Can’t you see?

  And they were there. In desert terms, they were right on the back porch of salvation. On high points and rises, they could actually see the Mohawk peaks. It was incredible, what they’d done. From the valley where they’d left their pollos, they had walked forty miles. It was a major accomplishment—merit badge stuff, Eagle Scout-quality marathon hiking. Considering the condition they were in when they started, it seems almost impossible that they made it so far so fast.

  I can’t, Lauro kept crying.

  You can.

  I can’t!

  You can!

  Mohawk meant freeway, and freeway meant rest area, and rest area mea
nt water and Cokes and Mars bars and rides and even the pinche Migra. Being arrested by the Migra—oh yes, that seemed like a really good deal right then.

  You can make it.

  But Lauro couldn’t.

  He fell down.

  I’m going to rest … right here … right under … this little … tree.

  Mendez tried to wake him, to get him up. Mendez got down on his knees and shook him. Slapped him. Lauro only snuffled and moaned, as if he were dreaming some sweet dream.

  Mendez took the money from his pockets, what money Lauro had. Then he tried to get up. Was astonished to find that he couldn’t stand. He pushed on the ground, but his legs gave out on him.

  How about that?

  Those damned legs.

  He grabbed bushes and tugged and rose a few inches and fell over. The twigs ripped across his palms.


  He got on his knees.

  That hurts.


  All right.

  All right, fine. I can do this.

  The freeway’s just over there.

  No problem.

  He started to crawl. He went on all fours, and sometimes he went on his knees like a religious penitent. The world of sin and grace spun in flaming disks around his head. He fell. He rose. He lay. He crawled. He tried to rise. He sat down.

  He thought it would be a really really good idea if he just lay down right over here under this little bush for a minute and collected his thoughts. He slumped, he fell sideways.

  Just a minute.

  The coma came up from the ground and covered him.

  Celia? I’ll get up in just a minute.



  Somehow, it became the next day.

  Late in the night, more men had fallen, and the small commando group headed out, five of them, led by Mario González Manzano and his brothers, Efraín and Isidro. With them, young Francisco Morales Jimenez. They made the final dash for salvation.

  “My brother was talking about water, water,” Mario says. “The five of us said we were going to make it. We were hoping the Border Patrol would see us.”

  The five men stumbled, sunstruck, down the mountains. They were facing Barry Goldwater Range. Efraín broke away. The Border Patrol report states that he became ill and they left him behind. The brothers say he went up a mountain to see what he could see. He was too weak to come down and died up there.

  Mario: “We went to the cactuses finally and broke them open to try to get water out of them. We had walked very far. We were dying. There wasn’t even a tree where we were. The heat was sitting down on us and we were dying. We were looking for the Border Patrol because we were dying. We were looking to the right and the left for La Migra because we were dying.”

  West and north, the vast bombing range sprawled. In its heart, there were false villages with empty houses—ghostly curtains blowing from empty windows. These are strafing targets, and the signcutters regularly have to roust sleeping illegals from the hollow living rooms lest the fighter bombers blow them away. And deeper still, huge tractor tires are arranged in rings and painted red and white, echoes of the tires wired together to pull the drags. Illegals often sleep in these, too, not knowing they are bomb targets.

  To the south, the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, the Pinacate Lava Flow, the Devil’s Highway. Ahead: the Lechuguilla Desert, the Copper Mountains, Raven’s Butte, Tinajas Altas Mountains, Coyote Peak, the Wellton Hills, the Gilas. And to the north, Mendez, sleeping under a bush, Lauro slowly dying in his wake. Beyond them, the Holy Grail: I-8. And Wellton Station, where Kenny Smith half-listened to the radio in his back room, and Ol’ José, the grinning skull, smiled down from the wall. And coming south from home base, agent Mike F. made his way down the landscape, cutting the drags, rattling over the bumps, looking for fresh sign, checking the hiding places.

  And then he saw them.

  Mario, after he could speak, after Mike F. gave him water, told the American his brother was lost in the hills.

  Mike called in the Banzai Run.

  At home base, the Trailer Trash uttered their famous “Oh, shit.”

  Vehicles from all sections of the sector responded.

  Mike F. cut sign back into the hills, searching for the lost González Manzano brother, Efraín. It is important to note that within ten minutes of finding the lost men, the Migra was already fully engaged in rescue. Mike F. found Efraín at GPS position N. 32.24.40/W. 113.22.53. It was too late to save him. Agent F. reported it: “One male, deceased.” Efraín was in sight of the Mohawk Valley and the freeway, if he’d known where to look. Like many of the walkers, Efraín was in love: his sunburned arm revealed a tattoo that said “María.”

  While Mike F. cut for more sign, the old boys were kicking off their desert race. The Border Patrol sped there so fast, with so many vehicles, over such vicious terrain, that they suffered twenty-six flat tires. Some agents drove on rims to get there.

  Marine pilot Major Robert Lack took the call that morning and scrambled. He flew over Mike F. and the lost walkers and circled the rough terrain. His crew spotted bodies scattered on the ground, and he landed among them. Ten men were on the ground, and one was dead. They were in their underwear. When the crew dragged the men into the choppers, they were too tired or weak to sit in the seats. They collapsed on the floor and went to sleep.

  Altogether, five helicopters joined in the hunt.

  Reyno Bartolo. N. 32.23.16/W. 113.19.55. Face up, green pants, green socks. Deceased.

  Enrique Landeros. N. 32.23.17/W. 113.19.54. Blue under-pants. Deceased.

  José Isidro Colorado felt death catching up to him. It was a force that came from outside him. He tried to outwalk it, but it was faster, stronger than he. He stumbled. He thought it was no use to fight any longer—the battle was finished. Death caught his clothing, and he started to fall asleep as he walked, knowing he would fall and never awaken.

  Then he heard his daughter’s voice. She was calling to him from somewhere nearby. “Papi! Papi!” she yelled. He opened his eyes, looked around. “You promised to build us a house!”

  José got up off his knees—how did he get on his knees?—and walked again. Until he was spotted.

  Agent Blaine Wilson led the Tucson BORSTAR units by air. Agent Stuart Goodrich, Migra pilot, took to the air and began cutting the drags from the air. The sheriffs joined in: Yuma’s Ralph Ogden took to the hills. He said, “It was dirt, some rock, just a few small trees.” BLM ranger Ruben Conde helped find a group.

  It was a mobilization worthy of a small invasion.

  Abraham Morales Hernandez. N. 32.21.85/W. 113.18.94. Deceased.

  The rescued thought they were dreaming. Heriberto Baldillo Tapia might have awakened long enough to think he was saved. The cutters got him off the ground and into a chopper. As they tried to get a saline IV into him, and the helicopter rose and turned west, Heriberto cracked his eyes. He might have seen the helicopter crew. His eyes rolled and drifted closed and he died.

  Nahum Landa said he wanted them to forget giving him a drink—he wanted them to pour cold water over his head. The sound of helicopters filled the sky, the calls of Migra agents. In spite of their terrible situation, it was still tempting to hide for a few of them. Even then, they didn’t want to give up.

  Lorenzo Ortiz Hernandez lay as if asleep beside an ancient saguaro. The cactus was easily three hundred years old, and it had seen walkers die before. GPS N. 32.23.18/W. 113.19.59. Lorenzo was on his back, his eyes open to his enemy, the sun. His brown slacks were empty looking: his abdomen had fallen in, his pelvis held up the material of the slacks as if his slacks were a circus tent coming loose from its poles.

  It was 110 degrees before noon.

  N. 32.13.16/W. 113.19.51. Claudio Alejandro Marin. Black pants, horse head belt buckle. One small mirror in his pocket.

  Cutters, Marines, cops, EMTs, rangers, hunted all night. Mendez slept through it all. They cut his sign from the group’s break
up point all the way to the outskirts of Dateland. Among their traces were a couple of bottles, which suggests they did have some water.

  Lauro was found dead beneath his bush.

  When they found Mendez, they thought he, too, was dead. They dragged him out and got him in the helicopter. He might have thought he was still in his strange dream, dark goggles and engine scream, the sky above and the killer dirt so far below.

  N. 32. 23. 17/ W. 113.19.45. Arnulfo Baldilla Flores. His white shirt still looked remarkably clean. His white shoes were scuffed. He had a wad of pesos in his pocket, money Mendez had refused to accept. He had a letter from somebody in his pocket, but out of respect, the cutters didn’t read it.

  Reymundo Sr. was found at N. 32.23.16/W. 113.19.52. He wore maroon pants and his favorite spur belt buckle. His shoes were gone. Oddly, he only wore one sock. It was black. His son, young Reymundo, was picked up at N. 32.23.19/W. 113.19.56. The cutters wouldn’t know until Nahum told them that they were father and son.

  The helicopters. Their engines whopped the air. They looked like dragonflies.

  Mario Castillo Fernandez wore blue jeans. His belt buckle had a rooster inlaid in the silver. N. 32.23.16/W. 113.19.54. Deceased.

  Far back, far east from all the action, Edgar Adrian Martinez lay, still alive, still breathing. It was incredible that he’d lasted that long.

  He’d been lying in the heat for days. The rescuers did what they could for him, but he was in bad shape. They called in the coordinates on him and waited for the dust-off to get there. He never responded to questions, they tried to pour water between his split lips.

  It must have been his sixteen-year-old body that kept him alive.

  Finally, the helicopter came over the peaks. It hove into view and circled.

  Edgar opened his eyes. They were dull. Maybe he saw, maybe he didn’t. The big beast hovered over them, kicking up dust. It started to descend.

  Edgar raised his head. He opened his mouth, but the motors were too loud for anyone to hear anything. He raised his hands as the machine landed.

  He put his head down.

  He died.