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The Devil s Highway A True Story 4


  If they’d just let the beat cops run the asylum, you think, a lot of things would change.

  The trucks have two standard features that everyone finds indispensable: a killer AC unit and a strong FM radio. With ground temperatures soaring to 130 on sunny days, and on certain nights dropping only as low as 98, the air conditioner is a lifesaver—literally. You can cool down a burning body right quick with the AC blasting, and with AC and a water jug, you can keep an illegal alive until the BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue) lifesavers swoop in with their helicopters. They’re the Border Patrol’s Air Cav. Cute red T-shirts. You save the wets and the boys in red fly in and get all the glory. You crap behind a bush, trying to keep it off your shoes, but BORSTAR goes on ABC nightly news.

  As for the FM … driving 150 miles at thirty miles an hour, alone, scanning the ground for sign, is boring. Even the night runs, once your probie nerves wear off, are boring. Old boys try to liven them up for you. When you’re new, they tell you the Chupacabras is out there on Vidrios Drag, and he sucks blood from lone wanderers. Or Bigfoot’s been seen coming out of the Tinajas Altas pass. Or there are ghosts of dead walkers creeping around the Camino del Diablo. Sometimes the bastards will even sneak up on you and shout, right around 3:00 A.M. when you’re sleepy, but that’s a good way to get shot, so most of them don’t bother. The FM keeps morale elevated. Radio calls to base often have a classic rock soundtrack—Van Halen and Led Zeppelin bleed through the call-ins. Sometimes, newbies will be blasting the radio so loud they can’t hear calls from dispatch.

  “Ten, base, ten. I’m twentied at the Pinacate Lava Flow. I’M GONNA GIVE YOU EVERY INCH OF MY LOVE! Over.”

  One nonstandard lifesaver fits into the space between the base radio and the passenger seat. A roll of toilet paper. It beats a handful of cactus.

  You grab a coffee at Circle K, microwave a burrito, then cross I-8 on the old bridge and head south on 25E. To the west, 29E parallels you. It is the actual terminus of the Devil’s Highway. The twin E’s take you to the Mexican border, crossing miles of a sere and mysterious bombing range. Your ironist’s eye loves to pick out crazy things. Right near the Devil’s Highway itself is a mutated saguaro that rises ten feet into the sky. Its main body is thick, and the top is a scarred, messed-up ball of tissue. It looks for all the world like an arm raising a fist. And wouldn’t you know it, the “ears,” or branches, that stick out form an index finger and a little finger. The Devil’s Highway throws up a heavy metal devil sign to announce itself. The only thing missing is Ozzy Osbourne.

  The aforementioned Army tanks molder in the eastern end of the basin. When no one is around (and no one is ever around) you can shoot at them for fun. On the west end, under Raven’s Butte, there’s an abandoned squadron of jet fighters. Rounds penetrate their skin easily. (You can’t hardly even chip the paint off the tanks, though.) Sometimes, jet jockeys target the Border Patrol trucks and dog them from on high, vectoring in on their white roofs. Many of the Wellton guys enjoy flipping them the bird out the window, or even jumping from the truck in the middle of the faux strafing run and raising the finger at the startled pilots.

  Marine patrols training on the dirt roads interdict the sign-cutters. It’s pure bullshit—pulling an agent over at gunpoint and demanding papers. This is supposed to be America. And how dumb do the jarheads have to be to pull over a federal agent, in uniform, in a clearly marked patrol car?

  The sign announcing the advent of the Devil’s Highway has been liberally punctuated by .50 caliber machine gun rounds. Those bored jarheads again. If you’re out early, you’ll see snakes on the road, soaking up some heat. Sidewinders are fun to harass—you can pull up next to them and pour water on their heads. They have fits, but don’t know who to bite. It’s a riot.

  There are other games the Border Patrol guys play. Sometimes they toss a recently shot rattlesnake, dead but still writhing and rattling, into the cage with the captured wets. Ha ha—that’s a funny sight, watching them go apeshit in the back of the truck. And they get it, right? Old José has a good sense of humor about it. He pissed his pants and screamed at first, but then he laughed and called the agent “Pinche Migra!” and swear to God, he peeled that snake right there and ate it!

  An agent out of Wellton once pulled a classic practical joke on his load of clients out near 25E. One of his boys had been taking potshots in the desert, and he’d plugged a jackrabbit. “Hey,” the agent told him, “I’ve got an idea.” He took the big jack and tucked it into some bushes near the road.

  Later in the day, he had some Mexicans in the back, and he was tooling along, taking them back to the station holding pens.

  Suddenly, he stopped the car and said, “Muchachos, un conejo!” A rabbit!

  They crowded the front of the cage and said, “Donde?”

  “Allí, allí. Mira. Es grande!”

  They squinted and frowned, but nobody saw no stinking rabbit.

  “Right there, man!” the agent cried.

  A vast plain of saguaro and dry brush and ironwood stumps.

  “I’m going to shoot it,” he told them. “I’ll show you how good the Migra is with our pistolas.”

  He hopped out of the truck and squeezed off a shot with his pistol.

  “Chinga’o! He’s shooting!” They flinched. Ducked. He holstered his weapon and got in the truck.

  “Got him!” he said. “Let’s go see.”

  He drove—they thought it was fifty yards, maybe. But he drove past that. And then he drove a mile. They were muttering and whistling. Then another mile. Then another damn mile. He pulled up to the saguaro cluster where he’d stashed the carcass, parked again, jumped out and dug the rabbit out of the bushes. He held it up so they could see it.

  They cried out in shock and awe.

  “I told you the Migra were good shots!” he told them.

  The guys at the station laughed for years about that one.

  Drags are created by bundles of five car tires attached to a frame, looking somewhat like the Olympic rings. Every few days, a truck chains a drag to its back end and drives the roads, ironing the sand into a smooth surface. The drags tend to cut east/west. Since the illegals head north, they are forced, sooner or later, to cross a drag. The Devil’s Highway itself is the Mother of All Drags.

  The fiendish ploys of the Coyotes offer you many opportunities to hone your signcutting skills. The whole game for their team is to pass by invisibly, and the team on this side is paid to see the invisible. The Coyotes score when they make it, and the Migra scores when they don’t. Like pro wrestling, there is a masked invader who regularly storms the field to disrupt the game. This, of course, is La Muerte.

  The illegals try to leap across the drags, but the drags are often wide enough to make jumpers hit the ground at least once. They walk backward, hoping to confuse cutters. You have to be good to confuse a veteran. An Indian reservation cop says, “Them trackers can probably tell you what color the guy’s hair was, and that he had eighty-nine cents in his left pocket. Then they can tell you the last time he got laid.”

  Lately, foamers have been walking the desert. Foamers tape blocks of foam rubber to their feet, thus leaving no prints. Or so they think. Foam blocks make small right-angle dents in the soil at their corners. And sooner or later, the heel of the walker will wear through the foam, and the cutter can see a weird pattern, like a small half-moon hoof in a picture frame. Your classic foamer sign.

  Every Coyote team relies on the old Apache trick of the brush-out. Last man through walks backward, brushing the tracks away with a branch of some bush. It’s such a standard move that Border Patrol agents call giving civilians and media types evasive answers a brush-out. The Washington, D.C., desk jockeys are considered the ultimate brush-out masters.

  There is room, in this desert world, for scholarship as well as sport.

  Cutters read the land like a text. They search the manuscript of the ground for irregularities in its narration. They know the plots and the images
by heart. They can see where the punctuation goes. They are landscape grammarians, got the Ph.D. in reading dirt.

  On lava, a displaced stone will reveal a semicircle of lighter ground underneath. Likewise a pebble kicked out of place on the hardpan, where the desert varnish that accumulates on the ground reveals a crescent of paler sand. In-ground sensors are buried in places known only to the Border Patrol. These sensors are known as Oscars. A Coyote would give his teeth to get hold of this information.

  Sometimes, the sensors are very cleverly placed—their little antennas stick up in the middle of creosote bushes. Cutters know that saguaros, the signature big cactus of the region, always grow among sheltering shrubs. So a stately old saguaro will not only serve as a signpost for the walkers, but a landmark for the cutters, and the landmark has a scribble of handy bushes around it to hide the wire.

  When the truck goes by on the drag, the Oscar sends a message to base. Base radios: “Oscar 21? Oscar 21?” The cutter answers, and he’s cleared. If base doesn’t clear him at his Oscar, he’ll call home. “Base, did you catch an Oscar just now?”

  Oscar 25 follows Oscar 21; Oscar 35 follows Oscar 25. If a cutter vanishes between Oscar 25 and Oscar 35, they know something might be wrong. They go to look for him. If an Oscar bleeps and no cutter is nearby, they know somebody done snuck into the country.

  Often the drag will have what Kenny Smith calls “hither thither.” Hither thither is a scrabble of pebbles and twigs and dirt on the clean face of the drag. It’s knocked from the tiny berms that the tire drags raise on either side of the road, and they tell you that someone tried to hop over. You look out beyond hither thither for true sign.

  Signcutters know most walkers pass between 11:00 at night and 3:00 the next morning. They can tell how old a track is by its sharpness—even in the desert, dirt holds some humidity, and it is this humidity that defines the track’s edges. As a track ages, it dries, and as it dries, its edges soften. Bug-sign is created when small creatures begin to scurry about just before dawn. Often, this hour is the only comfortable moment of the day, and in a burst of breakfast exuberance, lizards, rats, and insects set off in a willy-nilly marathon.

  If bug-sign crosses over a walker’s footprint, the cutter knows the walker has passed nearer to midnight than to dawn. If, however, the footstep flattens the bug-sign, the cutter knows the walker has recently passed, and is in the immediate area, and is probably in trouble. The sun is up, the temperature is rising, and the day will only get more brutal.

  When the cutter sees criss-crossing sign on the drag, he radios another unit. That agent drives to the next drag north and cuts. If he finds sign, he calls the first unit to leapfrog north to the next drag. He cuts it. Sooner or later, the sign runs out, and they have the walkers boxed in between them.

  It’s when the walkers get far off the drags that all the trouble starts.

  Mike F.’s walkers were not only off the drag, they were off the map.

  Kenny Smith was working the trailer trash radio, sending more and more units on the Banzai Run. Everybody was heading out there, every truck that could move. They were even thinking of sending out the water-buffaloes, the big water-tank trucks in the fleet. It was a mad scramble as they raced the heat.

  From Vidrios Drag, the signcutters started back into the wasteland, cutting, cutting. They started finding corpses. They read the ground and found, after an amazingly long haul, where the journey had all gone so wrong. Some of the illegals had walked over sixty-five miles—a couple of them fell in sight of the freeway.

  All you can do, Kenny Smith said, is cut sign, cut sign, cut sign.

  The sign tells the story.

  The sign never lies.

  And the whole investigation became a series of drag-cuts. It started after they had found all the dead—fourteen men; after they had saved the rest—twelve more. The footprints wrote the story. And after the footprints ran out, it was a trail of whispered stories and paper sheets. It was the big die-off, the largest death-event in border history.

  Everybody wanted to know what happened, how it happened. The old boys of Wellton were forever changed by it. The media started calling the dead the Yuma 14. National stories focused on the Devil’s Highway as a great metaphor for the horrors of the trail. But the agents who saw it all simply refer to it as “what happened.” As in: what happened in May, or what happened in the desert. Nothing fancy.

  Somebody had to follow the tracks. They told the story. They went down into Mexico, back in time, and ahead into pauper’s graves. Before the Yuma 14, there were the smugglers. Before the smugglers, there was the Border Patrol. Before the Border Patrol, there was the border conflict. Before them all was Desolation itself.

  These are the things they carried.

  John Doe # 36: red underpants, mesquite beans stuck to his skin.

  John Doe # 37: no effects.

  John Doe # 38: green socks.

  John Doe # 39: a belt buckle with a fighting cock inlaid, one wallet in the right front pocket of his jeans.

  John Doe # 40: no effects.

  John Doe # 41: fake silver watch, six Mexican coins, one comb, a belt buckle with a spur inlaid, four pills in a foil strip—possibly Advil, or allergy gelcaps.

  John Doe # 42: Furor Jeans, “had a colored piece of paper” in pocket.

  John Doe # 43: green handkerchief, pocket mirror in right front pocket.

  John Doe # 44: Mexican bills in back pocket, a letter in right front pocket, a brown wallet in left front pocket.

  John Doe # 45: no record.

  John Doe # 46: no record.

  John Doe # 47: no effects; one tattoo: “Maria.”

  John Doe # 48: Converse knockoff basketball shoes.

  John Doe # 49: a photo ID of some sort, apparently illegible.

  They came to the broken place of the world, and taken all together, they did not have enough items to fill a carry-on bag.

  Wellton’s Officer Friendly, a Latino who looks Italian, bristles at calling them the Yuma 14. “If anything, they’re the Wellton 14,” he says. “We found them. Yuma didn’t do shit.” In Tucson, however, they’re considered to be the Tucson 14.

  The confusion comes easy. The group entered the United States in Tucson sector, and they were headed for a Tucson sector pickup spot. They just happened to have died in the Yuma sector by accident. Walkers are identified by sector, not station, so the Wellton crew was erased from the headlines. Thus Yuma was forever enshrined as the rescuer of the survivors and the collector of the dead.

  There were other claims, too. Coming into the game a little late, Mexico declared the Yuma 14 as folk heroes: after all, Mexico loves a martyr, perhaps as much as it dislikes confronting the catastrophic political malfeasance that forced the walkers to flee their homes and bake to death in the western desert. Human rights activists claimed them, too: Our fourteen murdered brothers! Journalists took them as the hottest story (no pun intended) in many years.

  Officer Friendly considered all this a steaming pile of Bravo-Sierra.

  They were not only Wellton’s bodies, he points out, but there were twenty-six of them, not fourteen. “They’re the Wellton 26,” he says. “All of them are victims, even the live ones. And they’re mine.”

  Nobody wanted them when they were alive, and now look—everybody wants to own them.

  Their paperwork got processed through Tucson, as well. The dead were given back to Mexico’s care through the auspices of the consul’s offices in the borderland. The consul of Calexico flew home with the bodies, their first and last trip by airplane; and Tucson’s consul, Carlos Flores Vizcarra, collected the files. The death reports went to the groaning shelves of the Tucson consulate. It was all quite routine, with regular patterns, ruts, and observances.

  When a fresh death report comes into the consulate building, the women of the consulate light votive candles. Each desk flickers with a small flame. If you didn’t know any better, you would think it was a religious observance.

  Th
e reports arrive from the officials, so many that it’s getting hard to file them. Shelves are stuffed with them, and piles of reports sometimes accumulate on the tabletops. The Yuma 14’s documents, like all of the death reports at the consulate, were tucked into accordion folders, cheap manila packets available in any Target or Kmart. The death packets are known as “archives,” and harvest season—May through July—is known as “death season.” It is then that lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, strawberries are all ready to be picked. Arkansas chickens are ready to be plucked. Cows are waiting in Iowa and Nebraska to be ground into hamburger, and grills are ready in McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s and Taco Bell for the ground meat to be cooked. KFC is waiting for its Mexican-plucked, Mexican-slaughtered chickens to be fried by Mexicans. And the western desert is waiting, too—its temperatures soaring, a fryer in its own right.