The Devil s Highway A True Story 19

  Later, Williams heard about the brushfire the boys had started. How unlikely was it that the roving Border Patrol pilots and sign-cutters missed the initial big group, then missed a raging fire in a protected wilderness? Were there no rangers spotting for grass fires? Was there no Migra agent scanning the landscape? If they saw a fire out there, would they not call it in, to someone, anyone? And wouldn’t it stand to reason that a chopper would cruise by, just to see if the valuable habitat was about to explode in a conflagration? Bighorns and Gila monsters and javelinas and saguaros going up in bursts of sparks and billows of smoke? Yet nobody saw it. Or, better yet, if they saw it, they didn’t bother to investigate.

  A vast borderland conspiracy was at work.

  Mendez liked the direction it was going. He liked pinning it all on the pinche Migra, because the Migra was laying it all on him. Case after case of manslaughter, maybe even murder if anybody could be turned to say that he’d beat them or threatened them. And then there was the detail that troubled everybody except the prosecutors and the Border Patrol: Mendez and Lauro collecting money from the dying.

  Any signcutter will tell you that in every case, without exception, when the walkers are abandoned to die by their Coyotes, the Coyotes “borrow” or steal all their money. This is a standard business practice among those who leave humans to die for convenience’ sake.

  Mendez swore, to anyone who would listen, to Williams, to the jailers, in writing and out loud, that he had set out to save the dying men.

  Why did he need money to save them?

  To buy water!

  All their money?

  To buy water and to pay for a ride!

  What about every other group left to die? It’s a standard lie told by the troops of all the El Negros and Chespiros who work the line. We’re going for help; we’re buying a car; we’re going for food and water; we’re hiring a driver. By nightfall, the Coyotes are buying marijuana and hookers with the money of the dead. What about that?

  Mendez could only say, “I am not like that.”

  When the Wellton gang heard this, some of them laughed out loud.

  The living talked.

  Details poured out of them, and cops and the Migra and the prosecutors and the Mexicans listened. Rita Vargas penned a long, detailed report covering every aspect of the event and the identities of the walkers, living and dead. Investigators started hunting down the Cercas gang’s U.S. operators. Dark rumors started floating, that the dreaded BORTAC commandos were in Mexico, on search and destroy missions. An unprecedented wave of investigation was launched in Mexico. Eight hundred Federales were said to have flooded the northland, attacking Sonoita, hunting in Veracruz and Hidalgo. Cercas gang associates started to go down.

  Indicted in absentia by a grand jury in Phoenix in September 2002, El Negro, taking his role as a norteño-music-style outlaw seriously, fled the border. He hit the road in his pickup, all cowboy boots and evil whiskers. El Negro wore shades! El Negro drove fast! Women flocked to El Negro! He was sighted all over Mexico. El Negro—the new Dillinger! He taunted them from tabloids. He was reported to have gone, in a dazzling bit of ban-dido hubris, to Veracruz itself. He was photographed playing soccer, perhaps on the very fields where Reymundo Jr. had once played. El Negro wears shorts! El Negro shoots—he scores! Goal!

  Even the newsmen said: This hombre has cojones.

  El Negro, in a headline: “Come and get me!”

  A Cactus Cop in Arizona who may or may not be involved in BORTAC operations took the news calmly.

  “Don’t sweat it,” he said. “He’s cooked.”

  Associated Press, November 3, 2001: “A man who brought a group of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border, leading 14 of them to their deaths in the southern Arizona desert, pleaded guilty Thursday to 25 smuggling counts. Jesús Lopez Ramos, a 20-year-old Mexican national from Guadalajara, had been scheduled to go on trial Nov. 6 but changed his plea during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton. A federal jury on May 28 indicted Lopez Ramos on 14 counts of illegal immigrant smuggling that resulted in death and on 11 counts of illegal immigrant smuggling that resulted in serious bodily injury. …”

  Each count carried a maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment, five years supervised probation after that, and a fine of up to $250,000. Mendez might not have been a great guide, but he was a survivor.

  It was a move that startled everyone, including Gerald Williams. Mendez had woken up near the morning of his trial and pled guilty to all counts. His offer was simple: if you don’t kill me, I’ll admit to the whole thing. Mendez was taken away, not to see the light of day for at least sixteen years. But sixteen years, man, it beat being executed fourteen times.

  He had sat out his birthday in jail. He had lost touch with Celia, with his mother, with Maradona. He had seen the evil anniversary of his disaster come and go.

  There was no life left for Mendez, and he knew it. His luck had never been all that good. Even in his high times as a gangster, he’d been busted over and over again. The angry walkers in his lost group were right: he was an asshole. Did he believe he had a shot at a successful outcome in Arizona?

  He folded.

  The survivors had played the game brilliantly. They bucked up, and in the face of their grief, their rage, their horror, they stuck together. They had lost family members and friends. They had seen things they could never find the words to explain. They were hurt and scared, physically damaged, perhaps psychically damaged as well. But they were not stupid.

  In trade for their testimony, they were rewarded with immunity. The U.S. government plays by these rules: if you have something to offer, you can stay. The American taxpayer saw to it that Nahum and his boys got to stay in Phoenix; they moved into an apartment building together; they were given gainful employment. One government official promised they “would never have to work in the hot sun” and they were found jobs in a refrigerated meat-packing plant, where they grind cows into hamburger. The effects of their ordeal in the desert have not abated. Rita Vargas reports that one of the men sustained nerve damage to his extremities. He’s a hazard to himself at work, since he can’t always tell if he’s about to cut off his fingers or not. One terrible day, he was cooking, and he put his hand on the griddle. He didn’t notice it frying until everybody smelled the stink.

  The other guys are hoping to get him home.

  Since that May of 2001, the filth and depravity of the border churns ahead in a parade of horrors. The slaughtered dead turn to leather on the Devil’s Highway, and their brothers and sisters rot to sludge tucked in car trunks and sealed in railroad cars. The big beasts and the little predators continue to feed on the poor and innocent. Hope began to glimmer for a short period as presidents Fox and Bush courted each other. A kind of border accord loomed, and the sacrifice of the Yuma 14 helped stir the leaders of each nation to pity.

  Fox had wisely approached the United States in a fresh manner—not with hand-wringing, not with accusations and uncomfortable cries about human dignity and human rights, but with the promise of big profits. The message was clear: Mexico represents billions of dollars in profit. Washington was moved to wonder, Border? What border? Sweeping change was coming over the horizon.

  But the atrocities of 9/11 killed Border Perestroika. An open border suddenly seemed like an act of war, or a flagrant display of foolishness. The United States was gunning for bad guys.

  At the same time, our vaunted trade agreements couldn’t penetrate Mexico, couldn’t overwhelm the hopes of minimum wage, all the burgers you can eat, color TV, and what looks like free health care. The businessmen and women who run the maquiladoras (internationally owned and operated Mexican factories) that were to transform the border have found more, and cheaper (it didn’t seem possible) labor in China. By 2002, four hundred maquiladoras had shut down in Mexico with more slated for doom. The Mexican paper La Opinión reacted with this headline: “ANOTHER INSULT—Now the Chinese Are Taking Our Jobs.” Anti-immigr
ation buffs will appreciate the ironic echo of the complaint.

  Just when it seemed like there couldn’t be any more people left in Mexico to cross the border, new waves surged. The Coyote operations expanded. As the onslaught swelled, the Border Patrol thinned.

  After 9/11, over three hundred Border Patrol agents fled the service and became air marshals, riding in planes for a living with their .40 cal automatics tucked under their arms, watching for terrorists and hijackers over the tops of their Maxim magazines. The quip was: Life sucks, then you join the air marshals.

  At the same time, the American Right demanded more Migra. The INS took direct missile fire for its boggling of the Arab Threat and the collapse of the Mexican border. The old boys of Wellton Station kept driving into the desert, every day of the year. Foamers, wets, walkers, Coyotes, OTMs, and now Arabs. Homeland Security, that long arm of the Fatherland, moved to absorb the Border Patrol into itself, recombining federal agencies and trying to forge a colossus of border enforcement.

  The cutters themselves reacted with a strange lack of gratitude: the move cut them off from their union representation. Hardly a bunch of pinkos, the officers in the field still felt they needed fraternal support. Rumors began to fly almost immediately that a substantial percentage of the cutters would flee the new King-Size Homeland border forces.

  One of the signcutters smiled when asked about al Qaeda.

  “Well,” he said. “They’re from desert countries. But they’re not from this desert. They wouldn’t get too far.”

  Today, thousands of maquiladora workers, many of them strangers to Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez, Matamoros, wake up to find themselves without money in an inhospitable region far from home, where the cost of living is higher, and the padlocked doors of the maquis are echoed by closures and failures all along the line. When Vicks VapoRub comes from a Mexican plant, and your cassette tape and VCR are assembled by an “Oaxaca” who can’t read, and the big boys take their Learjets and martinis to Beijing, taking their little blue bottles and their Mylar and circuits with them, it becomes the duty of El Norte’s businesses to take up the slack. If only burgers could be cooked in Africa and teleported! If only toilets would scrub themselves, pants stitch themselves, tuna can themselves, lawns mow themselves! If only robots would slice the throats of cows and grind them into sausage! If only tomatoes and oranges and apples, and cotton, and sugar cane, and peaches, and cherries could be harvested by monkeys! If only we had clones! If only wildcat construction projects would frame and roof and shingle themselves!

  If only Mexico paid workers a decent wage.

  In Iowa City, Omaha, Nutley, Waycross, Metairie, those who survive the northern passage can earn in an hour what it took a long day’s work in radioactive chemical Mexican sludge to earn before. The green hills of eastern Arkansas are ripe with chicken plucking factories, and the woods are now alive with Mexican “Templos del Evangelio”—crazy backyard churches not unlike the Sonoita bible temple down the street from the legendary El Negro’s compound. Signs that once said “Jesus or Hell” now say “Cristo o Muerte!” The Oaxacas rush to the Arkansas hills to make a stand against the devious angels of Desolation.

  Mexicans still behind the barbed wire continue to listen to fabulous tales of Los Estados Unidos. They watch drunk and disorderly teens vomit in the streets of Spring-Break-Atlán. They wait tables and mop floors while sailors scream and naked girls dangle from balconies. Topless gringas pout on their beaches, where they are not welcome unless they’re sweeping up cigarette butts or carrying trays of Day-Glo liquor concoctions. They watch television, go to open-air twelfth-run movie houses where the tickets cost fifty centavos and the mosquitoes bite their necks. Radio is alive with propaganda: Eminem! ’NSync! Britney! Ja Rule! (They call him: Ha!) It’s Radio Free Mexico, on every AM and FM dial! They buy castoff American clothes at the segundas, and by God, even the gringo trash is better than anything else they can buy!

  Border dwellers, come from the hinterland, are twelve hundred miles from home but five miles from the United States.

  We gonna get it back.

  In ancient days, the Rain God was fed by the tears of the innocent. For any rain to fall now, it will take gallons of tears, rivers. In the desert, the drops evaporate before they hit the ground. Our dead men opened the gate for the most deadly seasons ever seen on the border.

  The Mexican consul in Tucson said, “The media only cares about the Yuma 14 because of the large numbers. But this tragedy goes on every day. It never stops. If only one person dies out there, it is exactly the same horror story.”

  Victims are continually gutted by the power. In Juarez, young women are still being slaughtered and abandoned in desert lots, rotting and mummifying where their rapists and torturers dropped them. Their empty chest cavities are home to bees and scorpions. No one knows yet who is killing the women. All they know is that more than three hundred of them have been butchered. A reporter from Mexico City who went to Juarez to investigate was abducted and beaten so severely that he was permanently disfigured. Local women’s rights groups whisper that it’s “Los Juniors,” the pampered sons of the maquiladora owners, engaging in sport with the easy prey of poor displaced women. Cops say it’s Satanists, or a gringo serial killer. Federales say it’s a foreigner, or a gang of foreigners. Bus drivers. An Egyptian. Street gangs. Narco smugglers. Americans say it’s the Mexican cops themselves. The year 2003 brought the hideous allegation that the women were actually being harvested by a shadowy syndicate of transplant-organ providers. It sounded like a story from a book of urban myths or a bad horror movie: young women cut up and sold, liver by liver, heart by heart, to wealthy white folks, and while the harvesters are doing their butchering, they stop for a bit of rape and torture to make it interesting.

  Susana Flores, a thirteen-year-old girl, was mercifully shot in the head. After all, the coroner discovered that during her torture, she had suffered four heart attacks. Imagine her pleading, her tears. Imagine what made a young girl suffer heart attack after heart attack after heart attack after heart attack before the Angel of Sorrow laid a tender gun to her skull and pulled the trigger. Even on the border, there is sometimes grace.

  Steve Ganitsch, the über-officer of the Cactus Cops, says: “Five miles from the border, nobody knows. Nobody cares. Nobody understands. They don’t want to know.”

  In Organ Pipe, ranger Chris Eggle, everyone’s all-American, your favorite daydream of what a ranger would be—an Eagle Scout, a class president from Michigan, a tall clear-eyed handsome man that fellow officers said was the embodiment of the Spirit of Christmas—was gunned down by two scuttling hitmen from Tijuana. How like Desolation to surprise Chris Eggle with a burst of gunfire on a bright beautiful day with the heat roaring up out of the land and the hard disk of blue scraping overhead. The gunmen had tied up their victims outside of Sonoita. Drugs. Fifteen thousand dollars a head. They shot each man in the back, full auto, rattatatta squirming and jerking in the dirt. Federales got on to them—the desert dropped a dime somehow and the cops came swarming, more blood, more blood—and the Tijuana sicarios fled down to the tourist area near the Gulf of California, totally screwed here in Sonora, no paid-off cops anywhere, no narco bigwigs to protect them: the only narcos for three hundred miles would torture them for days before tossing them into the Pinacate to be eaten piecemeal by coyotes and crows. But they were also totally tweaked on the buzz, the outlaw scramble. Loud music. Gunsmoke. They carjacked an SUV and tore into the Devil’s Highway, jumping the border and thinking they were clear of the Mexican cavalry. But the Federales jumped the line, too, undocumented entrants, all right, bristling with M16s and chrome magnums. As the SUV skidded into Organ Pipe and Chris Eggle got out of his vehicle, perhaps wondering what would happen, wondering how to reason with these boys, a helicopter overhead watching it all, the drug killer leaped out, all desperado, all fired up, all panicky, jazzed beyond belief with the chase and the stench of the assassination blood all over his feet, and he blasted C
hris Eggle.

  Eggle’s Kevlar vest could handle most rounds, but the one that went low bounced off his holstered weapon and took a ninety-degree detour under his vest and tore into his middle. The gunman must have thought he’d won the lottery; he turned to flee toward the Mexican line, perhaps thinking it all seemed like a good idea at the time, maybe thinking of home, of his lover, of shelter at the last second, when the Federales said, “Hi there.” Thirty illegal Mexican cops appeared in the brush and opened up on him. It was a scene from a Clint Eastwood movie, a hellstorm of bullets.

  One of the agents complained that only one of the Federales managed to hit him.

  “What’s wrong with those people?” he said. “Thirty guys opening up and nobody hits him. No wonder they’re in trouble.”

  The Mexicans were warmly invited to recross their border and go home. The perpetrator died, “crying like a baby and squealing like a pig.” Observers watched the Mexican bellow and sob. They might not have rushed him to a hospital.

  A border cop confessed: “I have a rule now. If it don’t speak English, shoot it.”

  Summer 2002: a coffin-load was crammed into the trunk of a Mazda south of Tucson. Riders also filled the seats in the car. The Coyote sped into town and was immediately targeted by the local police. A wild chase ensued, with the driver leading Tucson cops in and out of the outskirts, banging over railroad tracks and sliding in the sand that flows onto the streets like water. The driver got to the edge of town and bailed out. All his riders jumped out and vanished into the desert. Except for the two men in the trunk.

  Department of Public Safety officer Robert Telles inspected the car. There were no regulations stating that he had to jimmy the trunk open. Perhaps only a Border Patrol agent would have the kind of dark imagination to know there might be humans locked inside. Officer Telles followed procedure and slapped a yellow tow-away sticker on the windshield. Impounded.