Settings

The Devil s Highway A True Story 20


  The tow crew was slow to get out there, however. The car sat beside the road for two days. Temperatures soared well over the hundred mark. When the tow truck finally arrived, the crew noted the stench. They pried the trunk open. Two young men lay within. They were twenty-one and sixteen years old. The police reported there was evidence of “movement” in the trunk before the two young men baked to death.

  Movement.

  And God continued to flog his children with unusual fury. In the eastern desert of Arizona, a group of entrants was struck by lightning. Bound bodies, supposedly of Mexicans, began to appear in the brush. They had been laid facedown, with their hands tied behind them, and shot in the heads. Various theories attribute the crime to vigilante Aryan “citizens’ border patrols” free-lancing the chaos along the line, or to rival Coyote mobs exterminating walkers to make a point; paranoiac border watchers imagine a rogue Border Patrol death squad. In Texas, two FBI agents investigating Mexican train robbers who jumped freight trains near the El Paso line were mobbed by a gang of Mexicans and dragged to the border, where they were savagely beaten. One of them died. In Iowa, a train car was famously pried open to reveal the cooked and melted remains of eleven entrants. The world’s biggest coffin-load. A Mexican drowned on live television trying to swim across the pathetically narrow Rio Grande. He looked almost funny. He belly flopped into the water, splashed, splashed—it couldn’t have been more than two, three strokes—and he was gone. Just … gone. They played it as a tape loop: splash-splash-gone; splash-splash-gone.

  The Yuma 14 changed nothing, and they changed everything.

  Today, Mendez sits in a cell in the big prison in Safford, Arizona. He has no visitors. He doesn’t answer letters.

  The spirits of the dead moved the living in Desolation to make changes. Some of the changes are symbolic, too little, too late. The Mexicans opened a small consulate in Yuma, though the consuls agree that the Yuma consulate is an empty gesture. Tucson, yes. Calexico, yes. Phoenix, yes. But Yuma … well. It’s a building with a Mexican flag, and it balances out the Border Patrol offices out on the east end of town. The power remains in Calexico; the main consulate is still in Phoenix. Nobody goes to Yuma.

  Yuma sector faced strange changes after the event. Mike F., the signcutter who happened along the Vidrios Drag that first morning, went over to the K9 corps. Yuma Migra agents close ranks around him when asked if he’s available for an interview. “Sorry,” you’re told. “He’s with the canine units now. He can’t be bothered.” They don’t think you should use his name. Other aspects of the Yuma 14 case—BORTAC operations, for example, investigative leads—are under OP/SEC secret clearance, need-to-know, eyes only. Makes everybody feel like they’re James Bond.

  One thing Yuma and Wellton understood immediately from the disaster in May was that the way things worked didn’t work. If they were to hope for a change in the fate of the Devil’s Highway and all the lost souls walking it, they would have to become proactive, not reactive. They arrested plenty of walkers, but they wanted to save more of them. This quiet resolve is reflected in the way they refer to the catastrophe in obtuse terms—not “Yuma 14” for them. They still say “The thing that happened” when they speak of it. As if it were too sad to name.

  One of the first things Yuma did was to organize a crack BORSTAR unit. They immediately began to patrol by helicopter, four-by truck, and ATV. Sometimes, the helicopter ferried the agents and their small all-terrain scooters in by air, and they dropped into the danger zone and sped to the rescue. Each member of the unit spoke fluent Spanish, had been through a demanding boot camp experience, was trained in emergency medicine. Most BORSTAR agents were military men, like Yuma’s Jason Carroll, a former sniper.

  In Wellton, things were even more immediate. After all, it was in their patrol area that the deaths happened, and it was their guys who had first rushed to save the walkers. In a stroke of genius, Wellton trucked in portable army buildings and dropped them right in the middle of the Devil’s Highway, beside the Pinacate Lava Flow. The units were plain cubes, with room extenders that slid out on the sides. Water buffalo trucks set up huge water tanks outside. Radio antennae and satellite dishes went on top, generators roared to life, and small groups of agents took up permanent residence in the heart of the walking zone. It was a substation in the wilderness. Patrols had a base in the very middle of the traffic, and patrols could go out all night; the lights of the camp were visible to walkers for miles.

  Not satisfied with the substation, Wellton’s agents invented another, more extreme bit of ingenuity. It was obvious that the main corridor north tended to be in the deadly area of the bombing range, hemmed in on either side by the ABC mountains and the Gilas. Sooner or later, most walkers entered that vast alley and headed for the freeway.

  Agent John Bergkretter designed a lifesaving tower. It was an engineering marvel. Thirty feet tall, with a crown of aluminum reflectors hanging like fishing lures and flashing in the sun, each tower has a beacon that flashes every ten seconds. Visible day and night. Each tower is powered by a solar panel and a battery. On the pole, there are signs with illustrations, in Spanish and English.

  Like Nahum Landa’s testimony, it’s a kind of found poetry:

  ATTENTION!

  You cannot walk to safety from

  this point! You are in danger

  of Dying if you do not

  summon help!

  If you need help,

  Push red button.

  US Border Patrol

  Will arrive in 1 Hour.

  Do Not Leave This Location!

  The towers are raised in such a fashion that walkers can see them from a distance, and each leads to the next. Ultimately, the towers will lead from Mexico to the I-8 corridor.

  Each tower costs six thousand dollars.

  Environmentalists tried to stop them: towers would ruin the landscape. Critics railed against the towers, like they criticized the Samaritan groups out rescuing walkers, or the humanitarian outfits placing bottled water and canned food in marked locations for them, and still, conservative pundits try to get their constituents to believe the American Taxpayer, that mythical and handy beast, is funding lifesaving towers foisted on them by the lily-livered INS, which, by the way, allowed hijackers to blow up New York. Instead of closed and secure borders, “orange freeway cones,” comfort stations, and expensive light towers.

  Wrong.

  In fact, the towers are built, raised, maintained, and paid for out-of-pocket by those bleeding-heart liberals, the Border Patrol agents themselves.

  In Arizona, critics are more direct. Immigration protests have a homegrown cowboy feel to them. Toxic materials appear in jugs that look like drinking water. Humane Borders’ water stations are vandalized, the three-hundred-gallon tanks broken open so they run dry. Small groups of Mexicans are found tied and shot in the head.

  The Border Patrol is sentimental, though, and they keep building towers.

  On June 14, 2002, the beacons got their first test. A group of three walkers was overwhelmed by the 107-degree heat. At 9:48 in the morning, they hit the panic button. Old boys from Wellton were on the road in seconds. They were at the tower in twenty-four minutes. Like the Wellton 26, these walkers had left a group behind—seventeen more walkers were tracked and bagged by the cutters. It took one hour from button-push to rescue.

  In the year after the Wellton 26 lost their way, Tucson sector racked up deaths in the hundreds. Yuma sector managed to reduce the season’s death rate to nine.

  Consul Flores Vizcarra says it isn’t the desert that kills immigrants. It isn’t Coyotes. It isn’t even the Border Patrol.

  “What kills the people,” he says, “is the politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border.”

  Firebrand lawyer and human rights activist Isabel García is the spokeswoman for Derechos Humanos, and cochair of the Arizona Border Rights Project. She is seen as a beacon in her own right. She has battled the Migra for long hard years. Towers? The
Border Patrol’s lifesaving tactics are “like throwing a child in the ocean and then throwing in floaties afterward. It’s not sufficient, and we think it’s disingenuous to say they’re making it safer. Our border policies are the direct cause of those fourteen deaths.”

  And, “For the U.S. to attempt to put all of the blame for these deaths on one individual or two individuals or three individuals really sidesteps their responsibility in this.”

  Mendez could have used her on his team.

  During this whole event, the rescue, the trials, and the aftermath, an average of one person a day died somewhere on the border, trying to get those last few miles toward the big American lights.

  Perhaps, ultimately, what is so remarkable about the Mexican border is not how many of Them have come across, but how many of Them have not. It is not hard to imagine any one of the Wellton 26 deciding it was time to put a roof on the house, to build a small concrete room for the new baby, to buy furniture for his wife, to feed his family. Their reasons for coming were as simple as that—as were the reasons Mendez says he came. It is important to remember that Mendez himself never intended to be a Coyote—he was settling in on the Mexican side of the border. To hear politicians and talk show hosts tell it, the entire population of Mexico is on its way. We try to put numbers on a story that is, at base, a story of the heart.

  Numbers never lie, after all: they simply tell different stories depending on the math of the tellers.

  The same facts and figures add up to different sums. The Center for Immigration Studies did a number crunch in 2001, and they came up with the alarming data that each illegal costs the United States money. “The estimated lifetime net fiscal drain (taxes paid minus services used) for the average adult Mexican immigrant is negative $55,200.” That is, welfare, medical services, school services, various outreaches, cost us $55K+ over a lifetime of menial labor. The Mexican Migration Project (MMP) points out that harsher border policies, including the famous Operation Gatekeeper and its ilk, ensure that illegal immigrants stay for long periods—thus ensuring some percentage of that $55K+ prophecy comes to fruition.

  Several studies have also pointed out that illegal immigrants actually depress wages. They help keep the minimum wage down. This means savings for the managers: Captains of Industry and loyal Dittoheads in the grand cirque du capitalisme are saving money on low wages and cheaper product. That can of peas we eat doesn’t cost $9.98, not until the Wobblies get in there and organize a real union. Vicks VapoRub is bottled in Mexico; Big Macs are cooked by Mexicans. Shaving points off both ends.

  Although the federal tax figure is decried in some of the reports as minimal—after all, these are poor folks who make $4.50 an hour—it is still worth considering. If there are eight million tonks slaving away in the United States right now (and one of the Mexican pols interviewed for this book crowed, “We have inserted twelve million workers into the United States—it is already Mexico! We have won the war!”), most of those workers pay federal income tax: shaved right off the top. No choice, just like you. They pay state taxes: shaved right off the top. They get tapped for Social Security and FICA. There’s a whole lot of shaving going on. If you multiply $4.50 an hour by eight million workers, that would mean there are 36 million taxable dollars being accrued every hour by illegals getting tapped for some percentage by Uncle Sam. Those workers will not receive a refund. State tax? Has the governor of California gotten a new swimming pool lately? How’s the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge looking?

  Lower wages, cheaper product, unclaimed federal taxes, unclaimed state taxes, unused Social Security. Over a lifetime, does it start to ameliorate the $55K+? What about sales taxes, gas tax, rent? What about Pampers at the local Vons supermarket? Cigarette tax. Beer. Tortillas and BVDs and cable and used cars and speeding tickets and water bills and electric bills and tampons and Trojans and Mars bars. Movie tickets. Running shoes. CDs. Over a lifetime, how much does it add to the American commonwealth?

  But they take away our jobs! Interestingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Satistics has reported that by 2008, there will be five million more jobs in the United States than people to do them. This is after the tides of illegals. After the post-Iraq economic doldrums. Even if we vacuum up the homeless and set them to sweeping and frying, we’ll have a few million vacancies. Who you gonna call?

  UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center (you can hear talk radio hosts protesting already—UCLA! Commie bastards!) released a twenty-first-century study that found that “undocumented immigrants” contributed “at least $300 billion per year to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).” If you put their numbers at a mere 4.5 million, they still add between $154 million and $220 billion, the report says. Researcher Marisol Sanchez told the EFE News Service, apropos of this study, that “although conservative groups claim that undocumented immigrants are a social burden,” illegals tend to shy away from seeking social services because they don’t want to be deported. Wherefore $55K+?

  How many toys. How many phone bills. How much in the poor box at church. How much for pencils, steaks, charcoal, glasses, panties, bras, bikes, skateboards, concerts, Blockbuster, Monistat, Head & Shoulders, Listerine. AOL. Computers. Backpacks. Uniforms. Night school.

  What of the Devil’s Highway itself, the tormented border in Arizona?

  In June 2003, right in the heart and heat of the killing season, Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, released a study. Sooner or later, everyone will release a study. But this one made the Mexican consuls of Arizona happy. No doubt Vicente Fox faxed it to the White House.

  Thunderbird learned that Arizona “gets $8 billion in economic impact annually from the relationship” with Mexico. That’s profit, not costs. Mexico makes $5.5 billion. Reymundo and his son would have been stunned to know they were dying under a high tide of money. Critics will be stunned to learn that the United States makes more money in the deal than those wily Mexicans.

  Thunderbird relates:

  “Mexican immigrants paid nearly $600 million in federal taxes and sales taxes in 2002 … Mexican immigrants use about $250 million in social services such as Medicaid and food stamps … Another $31 million in uncompensated health care. …”

  That leaves a profit of $319 million.

  The Arizona Republic further quotes the report:

  • The average annual wage for Arizonans is $28,355; for the state’s Mexican immigrants it’s $12,963.

  • The total buying power of Arizona’s Mexican immigrants is estimated at $4.18 billion.

  • The state’s Mexican immigrants spend an estimated $1.5 billion in mortgage payments and rent annually.

  • Mexican tourists and visitors spent $962 million in Arizona in 2001, while state residents spent about $328 million in Mexico.

  • Remittances from the state’s Mexican immigrants to their homeland reached $486 million last year, with those transactions generating about $57 million in fees to Arizona banks and financial institutions.

  We not only gonna get it back, but we gonna pay for it, too …

  The investigation over, the afternoon growing late, the light fades in the Tucson consulate’s office. The scented candles are guttering low now, but they still give up their scent. The death pictures of the Yuma 14 go back in their envelopes, to be filed and forgotten. Their bodies are long gone, gone and buried. Still, the smell of death floats in the room as the tainted papers and cardboard folders are sealed. It’s dark and leathery, smells like burned barbecue and old trash, at once tangy and flat.

  A woman in stretch pants sits across the room. She has scuffed white shoes and holds a cracking vinyl purse with a faux-gold clasp in her lap. She wrings its tan shoulder straps in her fists. She’s sitting on the edge of the seat, and she has pins in her hair, and she is smiling and bowing her head, enacting the ancient pantomime of subservience that Mexicans of humble origin rely on to help them deal with people of power. Like consulate secretaries sitting behind big
desks.

  She has come to ask the secretary about a certain Juan García who walked into the Sonora desert a week ago and never came out in Arizona.

  The security chief is saying, “They drink piss to live!”

  “Excuse me, sir,” the secretary says.

  “What is it?”

  “This señora has lost a Juan García.”

  “How long?”

  “A week or more,” the woman offers.

  “Oh, yeah. We’ve got him.”

  She smiles.

  “Yes?” she says.

  “He’s dead. I’ve got him on the slab.”

  The chief walks out. The secretary walks out.

  The woman sits alone, staring at the desk. She looks up. “What do I do now?” she asks.

  Just as the last file is going to go on the shelf, a coroner’s report slides out. It’s Reymundo Sr.’s death certificate. Compared to his son’s, it’s almost an exact replica. Before the files are sealed and stowed away, to be unread forever, the Yuma 14 have one final surprise to offer. File after file says the same thing. Reymundo, and his son, all of them, have been listed in death as WHITE MALE.

  The secretary comes back in and notes the woman is crying.

  “Oh!” she says. “We’ve upset you.” She sits and says, “Señora, you must forgive us. We deal with death so often in here that we forget. We forget, you see. We’re indelicate. If you don’t work here, death still means something to you.”

  She smiles as she collects the files. The chief comes back in and takes the grieving woman by the arm.

  “Let’s get your man,” he says.

  The files go on the shelf; a stack of newer files is dislodged and falls over. It is almost dark now. The secretary pats her hair into place, then bends once at each desk, and with a small puff from her deep red lips, blows out the candles.