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The Devil's Highway: A True Story
Luis Alberto Urrea
The Devil s Highway A True Story 5
OTM —Other Than Mexicans —covers all the Central and South Americans swelling the ranks of the walkers. Many Americans don’t know that Chinese and Russian refugees cross Desolation as well. And Mexican smugglers are now using freighters to run the North American coastline and drop the walkers into Canada, where the rules are lax and the border —twice the length of the Mexican border —is even more abandoned. Middle Eastern operatives look like Mexicans; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they can pass. Muslim missionaries have moved into southern Mexico, often taking up where Christian evangelists have left off. They set up Koranic schools in Indian villages, and in tribes where the children do not even speak Spanish, they are being taught to read, speak, and write Arabic. Reportedly, the largest al Qaeda training ground in the New World is in Brazil. The Texas and Arizona branches of the Border Patrol have aired suspicions that the smugglers are happy to transport al Qaeda members across the Devil’s Highway. In a world of pure capitalism, Osama’s crew has the juice: these ultimate OTMs are said to pay fifty thousand dollars apiece.
Of course, the illegals have always been called names other than human—wetback, taco-bender. (A Mexican worker said: “If I am a wetback because I crossed a river to get here, what are you, who crossed an entire ocean?”) In politically correct times, “illegal alien” was deemed gauche, so “undocumented worker” came into favor. Now, however, the term preferred by the Arizona press is “undocumented entrant.” As if the United States were a militarized beauty pageant.
Maybe it is.
In the strange military poetics of the Border Patrol, the big kill itself is known not only as the Case of the Yuma 14. It is officially called “Operation Broken Promise.” Of all the catch phrases of the event, this is perhaps the most accurate.
In the postmortem packets, you will find death certificates, coroner’s reports, INS or sheriff’s reports, and the pictures. Each report has color photographs of the dead, both in hard copy printouts and digitized on computer disks. The pictures focus on the faces, or what’s left of the faces, then the torsos, occasionally the genitalia. Hands are greatly in evidence, but you never see feet.
The dead have open mouths and white teeth. They are stretched in angular poses, caught in last gasps or shouts, their eyes burned an eerie red by the sun. Many of them are naked. Some of them have dirt in their mouths. When the corpses are those of women, their breasts have shrunk and withered and cracked open under the sun. The deads’ open mouths reveal gums that have turned to some substance that looks like baked adobe, crumbling and almost orange. They look like roadside attractions, like wax-and-paper torsos in a gas station Dungeon of Terror. For many of them, these are the first portraits for which they have posed.
The Yuma 14 are all male.
Along with dead flesh, the photographs show pants, shoes, underwear. Teeth in close-up. Tattoos, if any. The pants are Latino knockoffs of American designer jeans: Furor, OK Roy, Fase 2000. Most of the underpants are colored, as if the walkers hoped to be stylin’ when they got to Phoenix. Blue, red, and black are the favored colors. The underpants are stained, either with urine or other body liquids that have boiled out of the corpses.
Among the paperwork and photographs in each packet is a king-size Ziploc sandwich bag. Each baggie contains the final effects of the walkers, whatever was found on and around the bodies that might be returned to their survivors, or that might be used to identify the dead. Some reports wittily call these men Juan Does. Jane Doe becomes Juana Doe. The women of the consulate open the files and catalog what remains. If you are lucky, they will show you these treasures. As they search for the Yuma 14’s archives, they place a fresh folder on the table. It contains a wallet, a few coins, a comb with hair and dandruff in its teeth, and a Catholic scapular. The picture on the scapular is of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The stench sneaks from the baggie.
The women tell you that they go home with the smell on their skin, in their hair and clothing. Sometimes, when several packets have arrived in their office, they can’t wash it off, even hours later. A year after death, files still reek faintly of spoiled flesh. The incense of their death takes over the room.
So the women light candles.
Once their candles are lit, they bend to the task of trying to find the families back in Mexico so they can deliver their grim news. Many dead walkers come from places with no phones, homes with no addresses. The best the consulate can do is call the village phone booth and hope a passerby will answer. Or they track down the mayor of the nearest town, and he then either does or does not find the widows.
In the back office of the consulate, the chemical scent of jasmine, musk, vanilla, fights the smell of corruption. One of the secretaries utters the Mexican phrase for yuck. “Guácala.” It sounds like something you eat.
The chief of consular security waves her off.
He says, “When forensic evidence fails us, we are forced to register circumstantial evidence.”
Forensic evidence would consist of such things as fingerprints. But the nature of desert death is such that forensic evidence is quickly obliterated. The body mummifies. In one of the million ironies of the desert, those who die of thirst become waterproof. Their fingers turn to stiff leather, and the prints are unreadable. On the day the consulate reopens the files of the Yuma 14, they have four bodies undergoing hydration at the coroner’s lab. A new corpse, Juan Doe # 78, is cooling in their company. The coroners pump fluids into their reluctant tissue, sometimes for days, to try to plump up the desiccated skin enough to raise a usable print.
The chief’s excited. This CSI stuff is fun.
“Your boys,” he enthuses, “were only out there three days or so. They’re already turning to mummies, but they’re not so bad. You ought to see the ones who’ve been out there a week. Two weeks! Black as leather! And they crack open—red and brown stuff drips out all over the ground!” He pulls a face. “It’s a soup. It’s disgusting!”
Many of the dead have gold or gold-rimmed or missing teeth, and their photographs offer the final indignity: they have white rubber-clad fingers jammed in their mouths, pulling their lips apart in maniacal grimaces, to reveal these orthodontic details. For these few, it has to be the teeth; there is literally nothing else.
The bodies that are identified are ultimately processed by the Adair Funeral Home in Tucson. They are embalmed, then placed in a cloth-covered wooden casket. This undertaking costs $650. If they are to be flown home, the “air-tray” to hold the casket costs an extra $50. The Mexican consulates pay for the embalming, and other parties—sometimes the governments of the walkers’ home states—pay for the flights. For more than 80 percent of the dead, it is the most expensive gift they have ever gotten.
Those who are never identified are registered by the United States. Under their new government-bestowed number, they are interred in the potter’s field at the Ft. Lowell cemetery in Tucson. They each get a small marker with metal serial numbers. These Juan Doe burials cost Pima County $760 each.
What of others? What of the phantom walkers from the Wellton 26? Stories float among the survivors that three men walked away. Some call it the Wellton 30. One survivor still maintains there were seventy in the original group.
“They are gone,” the Mexican consul in Tucson says. “No, no.”
He looks out the window.
“You will never find them.”
He rests his hands on the desk and looks at them.
“Perhaps a scrap of clothing.”
“In the desert, Levis last longer than meat.”
Six coins and four pills, a green handkerchief.
The candles flicker.
Some of the Yuma 14/Wellton 26 spoke Spanish as a second language. It surprises people to learn that many of the “undocumented entrants” are indigenous. Think of the border struggle as an extension of the Indian Wars, the cavalry now chasing new Apaches and Comanches. Much of the human hunting that goes on along the border
happens on Cocopah, Papago, Pima, Apache, and Yaqui lands. The Arizona Border Patrol, with millions of acres to inspect, has struck up an uncomfortable relationship with the natives in its path. Tohono O’Odham people, for example, regularly submit complaints of harassment by Tucson sector. A truckload of Indians looks like a truckload of Mexicans to the cavalry.
The Mexican mestizos south of the border, who traditionally lack our nostalgia for the “Indian past,” call the walkers “Oaxacas,” from the name of the Mexican state that houses one of the largest Indian populations. “Oaxaca” is a code-name for Indian, usually Mixtec. The women are often ridiculed as “the Marias.” Some of the Tohono O’Odham call the walkers invading their rez “Oaxacas.” The Yuma 14 are still regularly called the Oaxacas.
Indians calling Indians Indians.
The majority of the group came from tropical Veracruz. No terrorists, ex-cons, or drug mules. Mostly, small-plot farmers, coffee growers, a schoolboy and his dad. Some of them were used to seeing up to sixty inches of rain a year—the Devil’s Highway would be lucky to get sixty inches in a decade. They walked into the desert carrying soft drinks. Most of them had never seen a desert. Several of them had never ridden on a train, an elevator, or an escalator. Some had never driven a car. Some of them had never even eaten flour tortillas; to them, that was exotic food.
There are two fairly common jokes told about America among “undocumented entrants”—A) Don’t drink the water, and B) For good American food, go to Taco Bell.
What we take for granted in the United States as being Mexican, to those from southern Mexico, is almost completely foreign. Rural Mexicans don’t have the spare money to drown their food in melted cheese. They don’t smother their food in mounds of sour cream. Who would pay for it? They have never seen “nachos.” In some regions of the south, they eat soup with bananas; some tribal folks not far from Veracruz eat termite tacos; turkey, when there are turkeys, is not filled with “stuffing”—but with dried pineapples, papaya, pecans. Meat is killed behind the house, or it is bought, dripping and flyblown, off a wooden plank in the village market. They eat cheeks, ears, feet, tails, lips, fried blood, intestines filled with curdled milk. Southerners grew up eating corn tortillas, and they never varied in their diet. You find them eating food the Aztecs once ate. Flour tortillas, burritos, chimichangas—it’s foreign food to them, invented on the border.
They were aliens before they ever crossed the line.
The state of Veracruz lies in the southeast of Mexico, its southwestern end anchoring it to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest portion of the country, a slim land bridge that is echoed to the far south by Panama. The steamy waters of the Gulf of Mexico eddy off the beaches of Veracruz, and the air of the tropics is caught here, between the mountains and the sea. The green peaks wear scarves of fog.
Its immediate neighbors to the south are Tabasco and the troubled state of Chiapas. Mexico City lies to the west. Guatemala is less than five hundred miles away. “Veracrtuz” is a name bequeathed to the region by the Conquest. It means “The True Cross.” But its native roots run deeper, and more ancient names still grace the towns and villages of the region: Coscomatepec, Chicontepec, Tlacotepec, Jototepec, Atzalan. Indigenous ghosts haunt the land.
The affix “-tepec” reveals much about the landscape. “Tepec,” in Nahuatl, means “hill.” Although it is a coastal state, Veracruz is ringed by mountains. To the north, the Sierra Madre Oriental begins; to the west rises the massive volcanic range and plateau that encircles Mexico City; and to the south, which, due to the bend in the geographic elbow of the isthmus is Mexico’s west coast, is the Sierra Madre del Sur.
In Veracruz, things weren’t going well.
The people were killing themselves working the ranchos on the outskirts. The fishermen couldn’t catch enough protein in the sea. The cane cutters couldn’t cut enough cane. The small peasant farmers couldn’t get good enough prices to cover the costs of planting and harvesting their coffee. Even the marijuana growers were making meager wages once the narcos took their hit off the top and the cops got their mordidas (bribes). But it was mostly the collapse of the coffee prices. Locals will tell you that even ten years ago, the surge of illegal immigration to the north hadn’t affected them. Rather than going away, they were willing to stick it out, and various waves of semiprosperity affected the region. Coca-Cola and Pepsi hired workers, the fisheries and growing tourist markets took them to the coast, and the region was fertile—crops were variously in favor. In fact, the only illegal immigration that greatly affected Veracruz back then was the unwanted horde of aliens coming north to sample the good life in Mexico: illegals from Guatemala and Salvador were taking all the low-paying jobs in the cities, Panamanians were making tacos and fireworks, Nicaraguans and Colombians were sweeping streets and cleaning toilets. Hondurans in the schools.
Prices kept rising, and all families, mestizos and Indian, Mexican and illegal, Protestant, Catholic, or heathen, were able to afford less and less. Food was harder to come by: forget about telephones, clothes, cars, furniture. Even chicken feed, being maíz, was expensive. Pampers, milk, baby formula, shoes, tuition, tools, medicine.
Families continued to grow. The gringos and the missionaries and even the government representatives from Mexico City told them to stop procreating. It was simple: too many mouths caused hunger. But the Pope ordered them to continue being fertile —even condoms were wicked. And in the economy of hunger, which the fat men of the governments did not understand, more mouths meant more chances to survive. With a high rate of infant and childhood mortality, the lower castes, the workers, and the tribal people of the Third World tended to rely on their own procreative gifts for survival. If one out of five died, that still left four to grow up and begin to work. When Madre y Padre became old, ill, infirm, it was only the family that would protect them. No AARP or Medicare in the jungle. Four children, with children of their own, might suddenly represent a small army of twenty, all working, all pitching in, all offering a tithe of food or money or water or tequila. True communism, on a family level.
You’d think that at least there would be beans to eat, but the great Mexican bean-growing industrial farms sold much of their crop to the United States. It was easier for a Sinaloa farm to get the beans to California than to Veracruz—and more lucrative. These beans were poured into folkloric Mexican-looking burlap bags, shipped to Los Angeles, then resold to Mexican distributors. Worn burlap sacks, with their colorful portraits of Mexicans and donkeys and Aztecs, were eventually recycled into useful fabrics in the tropical homes of Veracruz, bean sack curtains for homes that could no longer afford beans.
Between Americanized prices for their frijoles, and the unpredictable spikes in the price of tortillas, the Veracruzanos sometimes didn’t even know how they would feed their families. It wasn’t just Veracruz. Mexico itself was spending eighty cents from every earned dollar on foreign debt. The vast money machine that was Pemex gasoline and oil bled more pesos than it put into the national economy. The even bigger narco money never made it out of clandestine mansions.
It was a two-way flow. Western Union had facilitated a cash-flood back from Chicago and Los Angeles. Remittance money stormed south from East Harlem and San Francisco, Seattle, and Skokie. It cost fifteen dollars a pop to transfer funds to the terminals at BanaMex. Western Union became so much a part of the folklore that it had its own nickname, “La Western.” People without electricity were well versed in using its computerized services. Bright high school kids from the dirt and thatch villes in the hills could make their way to the city and call up JustinTimberlake.com at the Internet café. If they didn’t go north before, they were not going to let the American Millennium pass them by this time around.
Men came home from the United States in cars. Some even had the latest models—new Dodge Ram trucks, bright red, booming Eminem on their CD players. Busine
ss-minded fellows could load up at a Texas Goodwill and sell the stuff for twice the price back home. They had their trunks and back seats full of old TVs, radios, clothes, toys. Even guys driving rust-bomb old Datsuns had stuffed them with Care Bears and Walkmen, skate-boards and bags of panties. People would spend months’ worth of savings on a small used television or Christmas bike, selling for cheaper than the new stuff in the unapproachable Mexican department stores. These fellows offered handshake financing, too: they were, after all, cousins and neighbors and uncles and boyfriends. They kept elaborate accounts in their heads, paid off a few pesos, or a meal, at a time. When the drivers had sold all their wares, they put the old cars on the market, too.
Castoff and donated clothing could be sold in the segunda, a rolling flea market set up at each wanderer’s house. Some hard workers picked trash at the border’s garbage dumps, fixed the castoffs, and resold them at the segundas back home. It was a rural black market.
They built cement block additions to their tumbledown houses, added aluminum to the thatch roofs. New clothes were signs of great success: satellite dishes, air conditioners, boom boxes, guns, cattle, televisions, coffeemakers, PCs, pigs. Some even got telephones. It was unheard of. Villages all over Mexico were suddenly slotting into the Internet, watching CNN. Families came back with babies who were supposedly American citizens.
The neighbors of these adventure-capitalists watched and wanted. Their children were dying. Dengue fever had made its way up from the Amazon. Malaria was spreading again, and it was worse than before—this new black blood malaria. Corruption, political violence, indigenous revolution in the south. People in Veracruz were looking north, as inevitably as the rains came and the mosquitoes bit.
Enter Don Moi, recruiter for the northern Coyotes.
Don Moi García drove around Veracruz in his big American car, smoking his American cigarettes, patting his Mexican belly that everyone suspected was full of American cheeseburgers. Don Moi was a walking ad for the good life.