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The Devil's Highway: A True Story
Luis Alberto Urrea
The Devil s Highway A True Story 3
When the windshield flashed in the morning sun, they stood, they walked, ran, tripped, fell. Toward the truck, the white truck. The unlikely geometry of disaster once again worked them into its eternal ciphers.
Border Patrol agent Mike F., at the tail end of another dull drag, was driving his Explorer at a leisurely pace. No fresh sign anywhere on the ground. Boredom. He was about to pull a U and head back to 25E, the dirt road that cut down from Interstate 8 to the Devil’s Highway and the Mexican border beyond, looked up, and beheld the men as they walked out of the light. Nothing special. You got lost walkers all the time, people begging for a drink. They often gave themselves up when they realized the western desert had gotten the better of them. Sometimes, you beat them down with your baton, and sometimes everybody just laughed and drank your water.
Only one of the walkers stepped forward. The rest hid under trees. They were watching Mike F. like deer in the shadows.
He took in the scene as he rolled toward them.
He stopped, put the truck in park, and opened his door. He put out a foot and gestured for them with one hand to stay put while he got the radio mike with the other and called in to Wellton Station. Cops tend to assess a situation at first glance—people are always up to something. In the desert, they were often involved in some form of dying. Most of them, if not in trouble, were sneaky. If they weren’t illegals, or smugglers, or narco mules, they were trespassing on the military base in some Ed Abbey desert fantasy, or they were cactus thieves, swiping young saguaros for their Scottsdale gardens. Gringos caused more alarm out there than Mexicans. And the OTMs—Other Than Mexicans—were so hapless and weird that you’d just laugh. Like the time they found a large group of Arabs in matching slacks and neckties, like some demented terrorist Jehovah’s Witness neighborhood canvass. “Oh? Are we here illegally? Oh! This is, you say, the United States? Right here? No, we did not know that. Praise to God. We were taking a walk, Allahu Akbar.”
Bad guys had cornered the market on trying to look casual and “innocent.” Mexicans, when not giving up, when not running like maniacs, often got wide-eyed, like a two-year-old stealing cookies. I didn’t do nothin’! I was just out here looking around! The more innocent they acted, the more nervously slouchy and devil-may-care or childlike in their sinlessness, the more hinky the whole scene was, and the cop would start fingering his sidearm.
These guys were clearly no threat—no need to unholster a weapon yet. The radio call went something like: “We’ve got five bodies on Vidrios Drag, over.” His voice probably sounded bored.
“Getting bodies,” in Border Patrol lingo, didn’t necessarily mean collecting corpses. Bodies were living people. “Bodies” was one of the many names for them. Illegal aliens, dying of thirst more often than not, are called “wets” by agents. “Five wets” might have slipped out. “Wets” are also called “tonks,” but the Border Patrol tries hard to keep that bon mot from civilians. It’s a nasty habit in the ranks. Only a fellow border cop could appreciate the humor of calling people a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head.
Agent F. did not say he had “tonks” on the road.
Arrests of illegals are often slightly wry, vaguely embarrassing events. The relentless border war is often seen as a highly competitive game that can even be friendly when it’s not frightening and deadly. Agents often know their clients, having apprehended them several times already. Daytime arrests have a whole different tone than lone midnight busts, out there in an abandoned landscape where the nearest backup might be a hundred hard miles away. But night or day, the procedure tends to be the same. The cop gets out of the truck and adjusts his gun-belt and puts his hands on his hips and addresses the group in Spanish: “Hola, amigos! Estan arrestados.” The Border Patrol so terrifies some of them that they give up immediately. Things happen. Stories burn all along the borderlands of Border Patrol men taking prisoners out into the wasteland and having their way with them. Women handcuffed, then groped and molested. Coyotes shot in the head.
Texas Rangers allegedly handcuff homeboys and toss them into irrigation canals to drown, though the walkers can’t tell the Border Patrol apart from the Rangers or any other mechanized hunt squad: they’re all cowboys. Truncheons. Beatings. Shootings. Broken legs. Torn panties. Blood. Tear gas. Pepper spray. Kicked ribs. Rape. These are the words handed from border town to border town, a savage gospel of the crossing. And the dark image of the evil Border Patrol agent dogs every signcutter who goes into the desert in his truck. It’s the tawdry legacy of the human hunt—ill will on all sides. Paranoia. Dread. Loathing. Mexican-American Border Patrol agents are feared even more by the illegals than the gringos, for the Mexicans can only ascribe to them a kind of rabid self-hatred. Still, when the walkers are dying, they pray to be found by the Boys in Green.
The Border Patrol is understandably touchy about this reputation. They think the Jack Nicholson film The Border, where all agents and officers are corrupt, is funny as hell. They recommend a good Charles Bronson film about the Border Patrol if you want to know what it’s really like. Something a little more straight up, more cowboy —cowboy in a good way, in the traditional way.
The five men rushed toward the truck.
“They’re dying,” they gasped.
“Men. Back there. Amigos.”
Seventeen men, they said.
Agent F. gave them water. They gulped. They puked the water back out and didn’t care. They drank more.
Seventeen. Then thirty. One man thought there were seventy bodies fallen behind them.
When Agent F. called it in to Wellton, the station’s supervisory officer said, “Oh, shit.”
For a long time, the Border Patrol had worried that something bad was coming. Something to match or outstrip the terrible day in 1980 when a group of Salvadorans was abandoned in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and thirteen of them died. If it was the Border Patrol’s job to apprehend lawbreakers, it was equally their duty to save the lost and the dying.
The guys at Wellton knew the apocalypse had finally come.
Southern Arizona is divided into two Border Patrol sectors, Tucson and Yuma. Fifteen hundred agents patrol Tucson sector; three hundred work Yuma. Tucson handles the eastern half of the state, starting at the small city of Ajo and covering Tucson, Nogales, Douglas, Patagonia, and so on. Yuma sector patrols the west, all the way to the Colorado River and beyond. They are responsible for Gila Bend, Dateland, Wellton, San Luis, and Yuma. Strangely enough, they also patrol into California’s Imperial County. This has caused legal tribulations with the Mexican consulate in Calexico, California: illegals apprehended in eastern California should be tried in San Diego, but they are transported to Phoenix, where their cases are heard. Responsibility for these people can stretch from San Diego to Calexico to Tucson and finally to Phoenix. It only adds to the general chaos that rules the border, a chaos that the Tucson consul calls “the politics of stupidity.”
Both Border Patrol sectors had been hammered by growing tidal waves of illegals. Urban crossings had been sealed off, and now smaller rural crossings were systematically clamping down. Operation Gatekeeper, the final solution to the border crossings, introduced by California in the late nineties, had ushered in a new era of secure urban borders and trampled wilderness. San Diego, Calexico, Yuma, El Paso, Nogales, Douglas, they were all becoming harder to get through. This looked great for the politicians of the cities. Voila! No more Mexicans!
Bigger fences, floodlights, a Border Patrol truck every half-mile, sensors, infrared spy videos, night vision cameras, Immigration and Naturalization Service checkpoints on all major freeways in and out of town, more agents.
But now, smaller, rougher places were becoming hot spots. The drug-smuggling village of Naco, for example. The small chicken-scratch settlement of Sasabe. The Tohono O’Odham reservation’s small villes.
And astounding numbers of hum
ans were moving through their deserts. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a relatively compact portion of Tucson sector, was withering under two hundred thousand walkers passing through every year. Deaths were on the rise: in the half decade before Mike F. found the five walkers on Vidrios Drag, more than two thousand people had died along the Mexican border. Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks.
The unofficial policy was to let them lie where they were found, resting in peace where they fell. Any fan of Joseph Wambaugh books or cop shows on TV can figure out the rest of the story. All cases, for all cops, require paperwork. The Border Patrol is no different. Each corpse generates a case file. Every unidentified corpse represents one case forever left open—you can never close the case if you can never find out who the dead walker was or where he or she came from. But uncollected—unreported—bones generate no files. Besides, how do the agents know if the bones are one hundred years old?
The Arizona Border Patrol’s beat included this deadly western desert, a region enclosing Organ Pipe and the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, the Papago (Tohono O’Odham) reservation, the northern fingers of the Mexican Pinacate desert, the Goldwater bombing range, and the dreaded Camino del Diablo—the Devil’s Highway. It is a vast trapezoid of land, bound by I-19 to the east, and the Colorado River to the west; I-8 to the north, and Mexican Route 2 and the imaginary border to the south.
You’d be hard pressed to meet a Border Patrol agent in either southern Arizona sector who had not encountered death. It would be safe to say that every one of them, except for the rankest probie just out of the academy, had handled at least one dead body. And they all knew the locations of unidentified skeletons and skulls. Bones peppered the entire region.
All the agents seem to agree that the worst deaths are the young women and the children. Pregnant women with dying fetuses within them are not uncommon; young mothers have been found dead with infants attached to their breasts, still trying to nurse. A mother staggers into a desert village carrying the limp body of her son; doors are locked in her face. The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes. When the five dying men told Agent F. they’d been abandoned, he called in the information.
The dispatcher responded with a Banzai Run.
The town of Wellton is in a wide plain on I-8. It is tucked between Yuma’s mountain ranges and the Mohawk Valley, with its strange volcanic upthrusts. The American Canal cuts through the area, and a bombing range is to the south. Running just below I-8 is the railway line that carries freight from Texas to California. Most train crews have learned to carry stores of bottled water to drop out of their locomotives at the feet of staggering illegals.
Wellton Station sits atop a small hill north of the freeway. It is isolated enough that some car radios can’t pick up a signal on either AM or FM bands. Cell phones often show “Out of Service Area” messages and go mute.
Many agents, borderwide, commute a fair distance to their stations. Drives of twenty, forty, even seventy miles are common. But the trips to and from work afford them a period of quiet, of wind-down or wind-up time. It is not always easy to leap from bed and go hunt people. Besides, the old-timers have learned to really love the desert, the colors in the cliffs, the swoop of a red-tailed hawk, the saffron dust devils lurching into the hills.
For most agents, it works this way: you get up at dawn and put on your forest green uniform. As you get to work, you pull in behind the station to the fenced lot. You punch in your code on the keypad, and you park beside the other machines safe from your enemies behind the chain-link. Your station is a small Fort Apache. On one side, the agents line up their trucks and sports cars, and on the other side sits the fleet of impeccably maintained Ford Explorers. Border Patrol agents are often military men, and they are spit-and-polish. Their trucks are clean and new; their uniforms are sharp; and their offices are busy but generally squared away. The holding cells in the main building—black steel mesh to the far left of the main door—sparkle. Part of this is, no doubt, due to the relentless public focus on the agency. In Calexico, the Mexican consulate has upped the ante by placing a consulate office inside the actual station: prisoners are greeted by the astounding sight of a service window with Mexican flags and Mexican government signs.
Inside, Wellton Station is a strange mix of rundown police precinct and high-tech command center. Old wood paneling, weathered tables. Computers and expensive radios at each workstation. In the back building, supervisory officer and mainstay of the station Kenny Smith has a couple of radios going, which he listens to, and a couple of phones ringing every few minutes, which he generally ignores. A framed picture of a human skull lying in the desert hangs on the wall. It has a neat hole in the forehead, above one eye socket. “Don’t get any cute ideas,” one of the boys says. “We didn’t shoot that guy.”
A computer is on all the time, and GPS satellite hardware bleeps beside it. Above Kenny’s desk is a huge topo map showing the region. He sits in a swivel chair and reigns over his domain. He has an arrow with its notched end stuffed into a gas station antenna ball. He holds the ball in his fist and uses the arrow to point out various things of interest on the map.
On the wall is the big call-chart. Names and desert vectors are inked onto a white board in a neat grid. Agents’ last names are linked to their patrol areas. In the morning, you check the board, banter with Kenny, say good morning to the station chief, stop by to say hello to Miss Anne, who runs the whole shebang from her neat desk in the big main room out front.
The town of Wellton is farms and dirt, dirt and farms. New agents, fresh from the East or West coasts, amuse the old boys by asking where they can find an espresso or a latte. Kenny Smith tells them, “Well, you can go down to Circle K and get a sixteen-ounce coffee. Then put some flavored creamer in it.” That one never fails to get a laugh out of the old boys. An agent, sipping his stout coffee, is mid-story: “… And here comes Old José,” he says, “all armed-up on some girlie!” Old José seems to be the archetypal tonk who shows up in stories. The listener, a steroidal-looking Aryan monster with a military haircut and a bass voice, notes: “Brutal.” He turns to his computer keyboard and plugs away with giant fingers.
Everybody speaks Spanish. Several of the agents are Mexican Americans. Quite a few in each sector who aren’t “Hispanic” are married to Mexican women.
Wellton Station is considered a good place to work. The old boys there are plain-spoken and politically incorrect. INS and Border Patrol ranks are overrun with smooth-talking college boys mouthing carefully worded sound bites. Not so in Wellton. Agents will tell you that the only way to get a clear picture of the real border world is to find someone who has been in service over four years. A ten-year veteran is even better. Wellton has its share of such veterans, but any agent who has been in service for ten years knows better than to talk to you about his business.
A great compliment in the Border Patrol is: “He’s a good guy.” Wellton’s agents are universally acknowledged by other agents as good guys. Jerome Wofford, they say, will give you the shirt off his back; the station chief will lend you his cherry SUV if you have special business.
Like the other old boys of Wellton Station, you love your country, you love your job, and though you would never admit it, you love your fellow officers. Civilians? They’ll just call you jack-booted thugs, say you’re doing a bad job, confuse you with INS border guards. You’re not a border guard, you’re a beat cop. Your station chief urges you not to hang out in small-town restaurants, not to frequent bars. Don’t go out in uniform. Don’t cross the border. Don’t flash your badge. Don’t speed, and if you do and get tagged for a ticket, don’t use your badge to try to get out of it. Don’t talk to strangers. In hamlets like Naco, San Luis, Nogales, civilians often won’t make eye contact. C
hicanos don’t like you. Liberals don’t like you. Conservatives mock and insult you. And politicians … politicians are the enemy.
There’s always someone working in the office, early or late, every day and every night of every year. They’re guarding the cells, monitoring the radios, writing reports. Sometimes, you can’t sleep. You can always come in to the clubhouse and find someone to talk to. Somebody who votes like you, talks like you. Believes in Christ or the Raiders like you. You can make coffee for the illegals in the cage, flirt with the señoritas—though with all the sexual assault and rape charges that dog the entire border, you probably don’t. Human rights groups are constantly lodging complaints, so you watch yourself. The tonks supposedly have phones in their holding pens so they can call lawyers to come slaughter you if you do anything wicked. You pull up one of the rolling office chairs, turn your back to them, and sit at a radio and listen to the ghostly voices of your partners out in the desert night, another American evening passing by.
But that’s later. Now you get your assignment and you head out. You’re usually alone. You pick up your vehicle from the yard. The station has its own gas pump, so you use your government card and fill the tank. You have a thermal jug of cool water. Sometimes you have a military map tube with topo maps. You have a GPS unit, and a radio on your belt. You have cuffs, pepper spray, and a baton. You carry a .40 caliber sidearm in a holster at your hip. It has a clip loaded with hollow-point rounds. “You shoot a guy to kill him, not to hurt him.” That’s the mantra. You carry extra clips.
The Explorers are nice. You go out there four-wheeling in an SUV that has been retrofitted by felons in a Texas prison. (Ain’t that rich. The only thing you think would be richer would be if illegals in some Ford plant in Ohio fitted out your rig.) The Explorer has a cage behind the back seat, and a mounted radio down between the front seats, and a shotgun rack behind your seat, but separated from the wets by heavy mesh. An upright pump is usually clipped into the rack. They designed the truck without asking you. For a while there, they put radios in the trucks with the mike on the opposite side from the driver. You had to lean over the whole unit and feel around on the passenger’s side. And some genius has designed the shotgun rack to go on the far side of the back seat, over by the door, so by the time you’ve bent back and struggled with it, the bad guy has busted caps in you. As it is, the mike on the radio is now exactly level with your right knee, so if you’re not careful, you’ll lean into it and punch the button and either jam the entire channel or transmit your own singing, farting, talking to yourself. The trucks weigh ten thousand pounds, so even in four wheel drive you can hit a sand pit and sink. You come out of that little crisis covered in dust like flour, looking like a ghost, and the assholes back at the station just about fall down laughing.