The Devil s Highway A True Story 21


  Iowe thanks to many. Their generosity and expertise made this complex investigation possible. Most assuredly, any errors are my own.

  Any writer undertaking a project such as this can only hope for a veteran investigative journalist for a partner. My wife, Cinderella, did more than her share of work. She set up a database, ran the computer, surfed the AP newswires and the LexisNexis cyberservice. She arranged interviews, worked the phones, and accompanied me to some of the meetings. She occasionally wrangled with the Border Patrol. Finally, she was my first reader and my first editor, keeping my nose to the news and my head out of the stars.

  Tucson author, and my legal counsel, Brian Andrew Laird Esq. took part in many uncomfortable adventures as I sniffed around. Bad miles, the smell of death, many hot roads, cheap motel rooms, bad stares from Migra agents. Laird broke a few laws in our first uninvited penetration of the Goldwater range, nearly broke his axles in jaunts across forbidden landscapes. He sat with me as we peeled open the death packets in the Tucson consulate. And later, he survived our car wreck with armed Chicano drug mules on the rez. Viva Pelón.

  I am indebted to the Mexican consular corps for generous help and support at every turn. Late in the game, San Diego consul Felipe Cuellar and his wife, Calexico consul Rita Vargas, were stationed in Chicago. Rita, as the manuscript reveals, happened to be the Mexican official in charge of the entire “Yuma 14” investigation. She and Felipe proofread my manuscript and caught me out in foolish errors. They hosted me to long locked-door meetings at the Chicago consulate. And Rita made her diaries of the event available to me. I will forever be in their debt.

  My cousin, Enrique Hubbard Urrea, is the Mexican ambassador to the Philippines. Even from that great distance, his presence and name opened doors for me. His books lent a welcome bit of clarity to my understanding of Mexican politics. I’m waiting for him to become president.

  His son, Alan Hubbard, in the security wing of the Phoenix consulate, made many incredibly valuable documents available to me, as well as the addresses and phone numbers of the survivors, and many notes on the structure of the Cercas gang’s Coyote empire. In Tucson, consul Carlos Flores Vizcarra was generous with his time and wisdom. He opened his archives to us and allowed us to inspect them and observe the daily operations of the consulate. His public affairs agent, Dulce, was professional and kind, and I am grateful to her for helping us penetrate their secretive world.

  Finally, in Mexico City, a spirit hovering over much of this investigation is Gustavo Mohar, cacique of the consular corps.

  In Phoenix, Mendez’s federal defender, Gerald Williams, gave us hours of his time. He turned over reams of information, and stacks of invaluable tapes. He also delivered messages to Mendez.

  This book would be nowhere, however, without La Pinche Migra. For some reason, the Border Patrol decided to take a risk and, after long and fruitless courting, allowed me to enter the back rooms and the trucks. They were both open and guarded. But they were honest, even when it was not in their best interest. They showed me how to cut sign, and they stood on the Devil’s Highway with me and looked into Mexico with a certain sense of regret and unexpected compassion. Several of the agents have kept me updated via e-mail and telephone on developments in their personal and professional lives.

  Wellton’s supervisory agent, Kenneth Smith, a thirty-year veteran, was my Yoda as I tried to penetrate their world. I think of the hours we spent with gratitude. Ken was a boon companion, and he helped put a human face on the Border Patrol.

  Agent Jerome Wofford worked the computers and showed me the death scene photos and analyzed what the death-sign meant. Yuma’s Mike McGlasson was the exemplary information officer and good Marine. He opened the doors for me. I wouldn’t want to be a Coyote with Mike on my trail. Mike’s harem of news-women was also a delight to work with. Officer Friendly gave me a bunch of shit, and it was a great help in getting the feel of the station. He suggests that the proper title for this book is Coyote Bait. Miss Anne, in Wellton Station, was kind.

  I must thank Jason Carroll, of BORSTAR, for excellent informative sessions. By phone and e-mail, Jason helped me decipher arcana—including the finer points of drinking urine. Tucson sector was tougher to enter than Yuma. Agent Ryan Scudder is greatly admired by the Mexican consuls, and he was helpful. Information officer Rob Daniels was informative. And in Washington, D.C., Mario Villareal was the master of the brush-out.

  Former BP agent Warrior offered generous thoughts and prayers late in the game.

  The Border Patrol’s PowerPoint presentation of “Operation Broken Promise” was a valuable tool.

  King of the Cactus Cops, Steve Ganitsch, was a great blessing. There were moments when other law enforcement agents were so astounded that Ganitsch was my friend that they gave up secrets immediately.

  Chuck Bowden, as always, was helpful and generous; a boon companion and a walking encyclopedia of border and desert lore.

  Rick Ufford-Chase and the Samaritan Patrols based in Tucson were extremely helpful and open. I learned much from them, and I admire their example.

  Dr. Ralph Cintron, at University of Illinois at Chicago, sent me valuable research materials. César A. González, at San Diego Mesa College, was as always a mentor and provider of valuable articles and insights. At UIC, graduate student JoAnne Ruvoli-Gruba provided me with materials about BORSTAR and some Border Patrol history. San Diego PD’s Great Dispatcher, Kyle Wiggins, helped out. Natalie Sudman introduced me to the Cactus Cop, and without her intervention, all the subsequent doors might not have opened. Thanks to my colleagues on the advisory board of the Paso Al Norte Immigration Museum of El Paso, Texas.

  Tony Delcavo, of Bella Luna Books, caught my single greatest typo: I apparently uncovered a “vast conspiracy of snuggling.” It would be a different border if that were true.

  Stewart O’Nan, as always, was the world’s best sounding board: his insights into narrative choices and editing were invaluable.

  My unbelievable editor, Geoff Shandler, found the heart of this book. And everyone at the Dijkstra Agency makes it possible for me to go into battle.

  Thanks to Rich Hopkins and the mighty Sidewinders.

  Finally, thanks to the members of the band Calexico—their song “Across the Wire” appeared unexpectedly and lent moral support when it was deeply needed.

  The news publications accessed in this project were: The Arizona Daily Star, the Arizona Republic, the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Post, the El Paso Times, Global News Wire/EFE News Service, La Jornada, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Newsday, La Opinión, Outside magazine, Range magazine,, the San Diego Reader, the San Diego Union Tribune, the Tucson Citizen, the Tucson Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Zeta. Ray Rojas’s Internet news service out of Texas was always a welcome source of information: Ray is the Xicano Drudge Report— even has a cool fedora. Of all the papers covering the border, the Daily Star of Arizona and the Arizona Republic are the invaluable sources, and the Star’s Web site offers a constant stream of illuminating border stories. For portraits of the Veracruz home and the relatives of the Yuma 14, the Tucson Citizen is of interest. Border Patrol Web sites and officer’s union Web sites were also of great interest. Mike McGlasson provided me with a healthy flow of Yuma sector press releases. The Samaritans e-mailed me their minutes after every meeting. And, of course, the aforementioned AP and LexisNexis services. My maps were U.S. Geological Survey topo maps that divided up the entire region into detailed sections. For a quick overview of the state of Arizona, the Arizona Atlas and Gazetteer from DeLorme Mapping was extremely handy. If anyone wishes to learn about the Devil’s Highway region, they need only step into Tucson’s Map and Flag Center, where Mr. F. Keith Trantow and the staff will orient and guide with a sure hand.

  Thanks to P. K. Weis of the Citizen for his excellent photographs.

  Several reports and monographs, from both the Right and the Left, were eye-opening. One of
the most interesting was the Population Council’s December 1, 2001, report, “Death at the Border: Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of U.S. Immigration Control Policy,” by Wayne A. Cornelius. Another was the Center for Immigration Studies Forum press conference from the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., in August 2002. (Transcript available from the Federal News Service.) The Border Information Outreach Service can be accessed via The Mexican Migration Project (MMP) has done some interesting research into the issue. An outgrowth of this research is the valuable book Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration, by Massey, Durand, and Malone.

  For those who want to keep an eye on the Mexicans, there are three excellent Web sites that pull back the tortilla curtain and make secrets visible. They are invaluable for anyone seeking to do thorough homework. These are: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte,; Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, Geografía e Información,; and Consejo Nacional de Población,

  For a liberal/humanitarian angle on the border, interested readers should look into Humane Borders and Derechos Humanos and the American Friends Service Committee.

  Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the border might want to read the excellent anthologies put out by Cinco Puntos Press, in El Paso. Both The Late Great Mexican Border and Puro Border offer insights into the world of the Coyotes and the rich and troubled border world. The latter has an invaluable dictionary/lexicon of Coyote and pollo slang.

  Certainly, anyone looking into the Devil’s Highway region must begin with John Annerino’s text, Dead in Their Tracks. Perhaps the earliest book about the Devil’s Highway region, barring the conquistadors’ chronicles, is Nils and Dorothy Hogner’s Westward Ho! High, Low and Dry. If you find a copy, let me know. Charles Bowden’s books are an invaluable source of border/desert information; of particular value to the writing of this book were Blue Desert and Desierto. Both Bowden and Annerino feature versions of the Melchior Díaz story. Rubén Martinez has written a classic of border literature, Crossing Over. Anyone who wants to understand the world of the undocumented entrant could do worse than to start here. For the bad-Mexicans and evil-Arabs crowd, Michelle Malkin’s alarmist screed Invasion is satisfyingly hair-raising.

  Aron Spilken’s Escape! is a study of a similar tragedy to the one described in this book; it took place in the same general area. For some sense of the awfulness of the Devil’s Highway region in cowboy days, readers are wise to read the last half of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic historical novel, Blood Meridian. Many other border/desert writers are worth looking into. Writers whose work also affected this book: John Alcock, Craig Childs, James W. Clarke, Ted Conover, Bernard Fontana, Julian Hayden, Gary Paul Nabhan, Sam Quinones, Sebastian Rotella— particularly his excellent Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the Mexican Border.


  Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of several widely acclaimed and prizewinning books. His nonfiction works include The Devil’s Highway, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction; Across the Wire, winner of the Christopher Award; and By the Lake of Sleeping Children. His celebrated fiction includes the novels The Hummingbird’s Daughter and In Search of Snow, as well as the collection Six Kinds of Sky, which won the 2002 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award, Editor’s Choice for Fiction. Urrea is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, a Western States Book Award, and a Colorado Book Award, and he has been inducted into the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. His poetry has appeared in The Best American Poetry. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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  A conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea

  Why is the story you tell in The Devil’s Highway important beyond the border regions of the United States?

  The simplest answer to that question is to say that, at the time, this tragedy was the most notorious border incident and the largest Border Patrol manhunt. It captured the imagination of the world press and it led to many potential border reforms. These reforms were sidetracked after September 11, 2001. However, on a deeper level, I think the border question is one that will never go away.

  The book is important to me because it attempts to reveal the many layers of complicity in the border chaos. Americans are being fed a bill of goods: Mexicans are invading our country. The facts are more complex and the players are many. Writing The Devil’s Highway seemed like a chance to show Americans the face of the undocumented. But it also was a chance to introduce Americans to the Border Patrol agent—a law enforcement officer who is disrespected, insulted, and demeaned by both the right and the left. Finally, it was a chance to reveal the complexities of the international crime syndicates that are now selling human flesh as if it were bags of marijuana.

  The Border Patrol agent who first stumbled across the lost walkers is identified only as Mike F. in your book. Why is his identity concealed?

  Mike F. is truly the hero of this story. When I began interviewing Border Patrol agents, they closed ranks on the subject of this particular agent. I believe they were trying to protect his privacy. Since the book has come out, however, I have been in contact with him. He is now with Canine Corps and his name is Dave Phagan. I was able to cobble together a sketchy version of his experience through the testimony of his brother officers. But Phagan’s story is much more amazing, complex, and shocking than what I could capture in the book. I hope to find a way to tell his complete story in the near future.

  Coming to this story as a Mexican American, did you feel you brought any bias to how you researched or wrote The Devil’s Highway? And do you feel that your perspective changed at all during the writing process?

  Yes. My missionary background made me deeply sympathetic to the undocumented. My Mexican-American background made me feel antagonistic toward the Border Patrol.

  I found that my sympathy for the undocumented deepened the more I looked into their struggle. That doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the sense of alarm Americans feel over the porous border. I share a deep sense of dismay after watching what’s happening there. And, of course, the greatest surprise for me was in discovering the humanity in the Border Patrol agents I got to know. My perspective has continued to evolve since the book has been published, since I regularly hear from Border Patrol and Homeland Security agents in response to what I wrote.

  The Devil’s Highway seems to present all sides fairly. Were you deliberately trying not to advocate a particular point of view when you started this project? Or was that something that developed in the course of writing the book?

  When the research began, Jesus Lopez Ramos was presented to me as the “bad guy.” Soon his defenders made a strong case for the Border Patrol being the “bad guy.” Law enforcement made a strong case for the smugglers being the “bad guys.” And I knew that popular culture, as expressed in talk radio for example, considers the “illegals” the “bad guys.” It was my field experience with supervisory agent Ken Smith that led to the epiphany. If I was going to write a book hoping to deal with this issue fairly, how could I write it with a prejudice toward Ken and his brothers in forest green? Once that key turned in the lock, the tone of the narrative opened for me. I have to trust my readers to make up their own minds. Even if that means reaching decisions I didn’t intend for them to reach.

  You’ve talked a lot about the response from the Border Patrol, but how have Mexican Americans responded to your book?

  I think that my own standing in the community affects how people respond to the book. Illegal immigration is much more complex for us Mexican Americans than the dominant culture realizes. Feelings about coyotes are complicated. Feelings about the Border Patrol are complicated. All of those elements went into the writing of The Devil’s Highway, but a
lso go into the Mexican-American readers’ response to the book. For example, I, like many of my readers, am very close to a number of undocumented entrants into the United States. As a writer, I want to represent their humanity and let the facts speak for themselves.

  One example of an uncomfortable response to my book is something that happened in Seattle. A Chicana in the audience told me she was deeply concerned that I had revealed walking paths of the undocumented in my text and that as a result the Border Patrol could now catch people on these paths. This was a funny moment for me because I had to tell her that it was the Border Patrol who taught me about those very paths. Over all, people have been very positive about the book. No matter their personal views.

  In your earlier books about the border (Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children), you illuminated what life is like for those who live along the Mexican border. Was The Devil’s Highway intended to show a natural progression for these people?

  When I began, I didn’t have a plan. I certainly didn’t expect to be the voice of the border. The natural progression I have seen is from obscure writer to talking head. That being said, Across the Wire was intended as an introduction to the human face of the invisible. I wanted Americans to understand what might drive someone to cross that line. The Devil’s Highway moves the focus ahead to the actual crossing. I suppose if I were going to commit fully to this border chronicle, I could write a book about the lives of the undocumented in the shadows of the U.S. In a way, I guess I started that process in an op-ed piece I wrote for the New York Times at Christmas 2004.

  I’d like to share a story that might illuminate some of this process: For me, like the walkers in my book, this has been a journey across unexpected terrain. One revelation came near the Badlands of South Dakota. We were driving cross-country and we saw signs advertising a preserved sodbuster’s hut. We thought it would be interesting to learn how the heroic American pioneers had lived. Imagine my shock when we pushed into the hut and I discovered the familiar dirty-paper-wall, improvised-furnishings of a garbage picker’s hut in the Tijuana dump. I stood there in stunned silence, realizing that I had eaten rancid beans and old tortillas in virtually the same structure. I saw those western pioneers as if they were ghosts passing through the two rooms and here’s where it hit me: These brave people heading west, imposing themselves on a population that didn’t want them there, forced to live in dire straits, were our heroes because they were part of our myth. But those pioneers heading north, imposing themselves on a population that doesn’t want them, living in dire straits, are our pariahs because they are not part of our noble myth. Back home, however, they might just be Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett to the popular mind.