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The Devil's Highway: A True Story
Luis Alberto Urrea
The Devil s Highway A True Story 6
Don Moi was trustworthy—the gold watch and the prefix “Don,” or Sir, even Sire, took care of that. But he was also a local, living in Tlapacoyan. People knew him—they’d seen him for years, doing his business. He was the godfather of kids, the compadre of their parents, a tío, one of the uncles, a neighbor. He was gray-haired. A man, as they said, of substance.
They didn’t want to say he was fat, but he had a great solid belly. People could tell the old man was enjoying a comfortable life. That panza of his got him plenty of business. Hungry men wanted guts like his.
He drove into the highlands, cutting through jungle and terraced, jewel-bright farmland. He had an exotic cell phone, and he murmured into it, talking to mysterious people in El Norte. He made himself available at restaurants, in cantinas. He could be found wherever men gathered for a cup of coffee with raw cane syrup and goat milk in each cup.
Don Moi was a fixer for the shadowy Coyotes of Sonora, a Robin Hood figure to the muchachos of Veracruz. A benevolent outlaw with a bushy mustache. And, like all gangsters, he had accumulated a certain place of honor. Many of the poor mothers and fathers who called him “Don” were older than he. Almost nobody called him by his birth name, Moises. Like royalty, he had taken on a title.
In North America, the myth tends west: the cowboys, the Indians, the frontier, the wild lands, the bears and wolves and gold mines and vast ranches were in the west. But in Mexico, a country narrow at bottom and wide at the top, the myth ran north. The Mayas pushed north, and the Aztecs pushed north once they’d formed an empire. Later, the Spaniards pushed north. The wide open spaces lay northward. The cowboys and Indians, the great Pancho Villa outlaws, the frontier, lay north, not west. That’s why norteño people are the cowboys of Mexico—not westerners. The Spanish word for “border” is, after all, frontera. The frontier.
Along with great adventures in the west, Americans yearned for riches. The Gold Rush and the Land Rush come to mind. For the Mexicans, the Gold Rush lay in those mystical lands up there, above: Orange County, Cicero, Dubuque, Odessa.
More than four thousand men from the region had already left.
New explorers prepared.
They approached Don Moi in small groups. Some of them didn’t know each other. He met the Bautistas in Equimite, near their home. The first of the Wellton 26. Heading for a place they’d never heard of, had never imagined. Arizona? The joke was to call it “Narizona,” or the Woman with the Big Nose.
Don Moi greeted them and invited them to a sit-down. Hmm, hmmm, yes, yes: he listened and nodded. His rings defined arcs of gold in the air as he stirred his coffee. Oh, yes, boys, sure. Things can be arranged. But they’re complicated. You see, it’s expensive.
What I do isn’t missionary work, boys. It’s a business. I’m a professional.
But of course! Claro! Who would suggest otherwise, Don Moi!
My services are the best. So I charge for them.
The ring, the neck chain, the watch. He sipped his coffee. His belly challenged the buttons on his guayabera.
The Bautista boys weren’t cheap, but they weren’t rich, either. The idea was to go make money, not lose it all before they’d gotten going.
How much is your future worth to you?
Well, chinga’o. We don’t have much.
It’s sixteen thousand pesos to cross into the U.S. And it’s three thousand more for your bus trip and food and lodging to get to the border. Let’s say, twenty thousand pesos. Each.
Twenty thousand pesos! It takes us a year to make twenty thousand pesos.
Don Moi could sense their reservations. But he’d gotten the bite; now he had to set the hook. He beamed at them.
But you won’t have to go alone. I’ll go with you.
Don Moi, the great father, leading his boys on a field trip. You will?
We’ll go together. Do you think I’d let my clients wander to El Norte alone?
Of course, you can save some money, if you’re men enough to walk in the desert, instead of catching a ride or sneaking into a city.
Man enough! I’m nothing but man, Don Moi! How much will you take off the top if we walk?
I can get you there for thirteen thousand if you walk.
Don Moi happily started reeling them in.
How will you pay?
We don’t know.
Get a loan.
And they did get loans. The going interest rates from local loan sharks for money lent against a plot of land was 15 percent, compounded monthly. They put up their land. A few made deals with Don Moi himself, more than happy to offer them loans against future earnings in the United States. What was seventeen hundred or eighteen hundred dollars when you were going to be rolling in dólares gringos? A few words with his trusted associate, the mighty Chespiro in Hidalgo, and the loan would be approved.
A slight down payment now, Don Moi murmured—whatever they could afford—and a reasonable payment schedule, at a slightly higher percentage rate. After all, Don Moi was taking a great risk in not only delivering them but trusting them to pay him back, and he needed to be rewarded for his trust. A good deal all around, Don Moi would have said.
And of course, they would pay him back … Chespiro, well, Chespiro! Don Moi made it clear that he couldn’t be responsible for Chespiro’s wrath should they shirk their responsibilities to him. They might vanish into the United States, start life anew, be safe forever: who could find them? If the INS didn’t find Mexicans, poor old Don Moi couldn’t either. But Chespiro. He knew where all the wives and children lived. It was too ugly to discuss, too unpleasant to even consider, so they all agreed that Chespiro should be given no cause to visit the families late in the night.
How soon do we go? They wanted to know.
It takes time. But don’t worry, boys. We’ll see what we can do.
His cell phone was sitting next to his coffee. They shook hands. His belly touched the edge of the table.
Reymundo Barreda was a mestizo, indigenous on his mother’s side. Her last name was Maruri, and in the Mexican fashion, he bore her name as well. Barreda Maruri.
He was a mature man, a strong, hard worker with a cowboy’s aspect—he favored western wear; his favorite belt buckle, for example, was in the shape of a silver spur. He wore silver rather than gold, either from preference or due to lower cost. His watch was on a faux-silver band. He was a soda bottler by trade when he wasn’t tending his land.
He had resolved to go north to expand and reroof his small house as a gift for his wife. A summer of orange picking was all he had in mind. He had already figured out the cost of cement block and aluminum roofing and a couple of bags of cement. Florida. It was warm like Mexico, sunny, pleasant.
His pride and joy was his son, Reymundo Jr. At fifteen, Reymundo was a sturdy student in the regional school system, and he had distinguished himself as a star of the local soccer leagues. Every teen dreams of notoriety or fame, and perhaps Reymundo could develop his soccer skills and play professionally. The thought did cross his mind when he was charging down the field. Full of strength. He had the sheer faith in his father and life that could be expected from a kid whose name meant “King of the World.”
In a surprise gesture of loyalty to his father, Reymundo Jr. asked to go along on the trip. He convinced his father by explaining to him that two strong backs could earn more money in a short time than one. And if they both worked like burros all summer, they’d make double the money. They might buy his mother furniture to go in the new room. For them, the planned trip was a gesture of love.
Reymundo Sr. was worried about his son’s well-being. The boy was restless and hungry for adventure. The old man was pretty sure his boy would go off alone if he didn’t take him. And he thought of his own lonely journey ahead. When it came time to
sit across from Don Moi, he was troubled. But, reluctantly, he signed himself and the boy onto the roster.
Nahum Landa was a dark young man in his twenties with a melodious voice. He had deep black, shaggy hair. Sometimes you had to lean in to hear him speak. His meeting with Moises was oddly Biblical: two men with Old Testament names haggled over details of their exodus. It seemed like a good idea. Nahum was the brother-in-law of Reymundo Sr. If the extended family went together, they could look out for each other.
Nahum was deceptive—his quiet voice, with its melodic quickness, its slightly slurred words, and his sometimes evasive gaze, hid the strong man behind the façade. Nahum was a natural leader. He had no doubt he would survive, no matter what happened to them. And his boys signed up with him, looking to him as a guardian.
There were others signing up.
Enrique Landeros García was thirty years old. His wife, Octavia, was only twenty-three. They had a son named Alexis. He had recently turned seven, and he was ready for school, but Enrique and Octavia didn’t have the kind of money school required. Although the Mexican system used uniforms to standardize all classes of students, you had to first have the uniform. Shoes. Supplies. Tuition. Enrique made his way to Don Moi’s table for little Alexis—a small illegal venture to pay for a more straightforward chance at a future.
Reyno Bartolo Hernandez was thirty-seven years old. He was one of the older men in the crew. He and his wife, Agustina, had been married for nineteen years. Theirs was a stable household; it could even be called an established home. After their years together, however, they’d decided to adopt a daughter. Reyno went to Don Moi for money to pay for her care. He didn’t have many clothes to take, though he did put aside his favorite green pants for the long walk.
Mario Castillo Fernandez was a handsome young man of twenty-five. He was in good condition, a hard worker, his only curse poverty. His wife, Irma, was fiercely dedicated to him. Their love was still strong, though they’d been together since their teens. They had two young children, and like Enrique Landeros, Mario was facing school with no prospects for greater income. And, knowing his love for Irma, there would be more children.
Perhaps he could build a better house. Add a room. Send the children to school in good pants, with new backpacks, known as mochilas. Maybe he could buy Irma new furniture. The rumors said he could get to Florida, where it was warm like home. Pick oranges. How bad could that be? He liked oranges. He wasn’t afraid to work. He added his name to the list.
Don Moi drove from town to town, patient, happy. He called Chespiro, his shadowy boss in Hidalgo.
Yes, yes, it’s going well, jefe.
I have them lined up.
Several already. Seven, eight.
Don’t worry, I’ll get more.
The Coyote and the Chicken
There are things, unlikely as it seems, that unite the Mexican consular corps and the Border Patrol. In consulates, names of certain Border Patrol officers are spoken with respect, even affection—Ryan Scudder of Tucson is called a gentleman; Mike McGlasson of Yuma is looked on with respect; Ken Smith, at Wellton, is mentioned as a kind of patriarch of the wasteland. The Wellton boys like the Calexico consul and the Yuma consul, and they have a pretty good feeling about the Mexican Beta Group cops, who are the elite agents investigating narco and Coyote crimes on the Mexican side. Aside from that, they seem to see lots of the other Mexicans as communists and thieves.
But the two things that most unify the two sides are each one’s deep distrust of its own government, and each side’s simmering hatred for the human smugglers, the gangsters who call themselves Coyotes.
The sign is printed in black and blue and red on a white banner.
It faces south.
They have spent good money on it.
For the Coyotes Your Needs
Are Only A Business And
They Don’t Care About Your Safety
Or the Safety of Your Family.
DON’T PAY THEM OFF WITH YOUR LIVES!!!
The sign has been posted by the Mexican government at Sasabe, Sonora. It is as absurd a placard as might have been posted by the U.S. government. Policy wonks in Washington, D.C., are as ineffectual as policy wonks in México, D.F.
There is no real border here, just a tattered barbed wire fence, a dusty plain, and some rattling bushes. Walkers face the Brawley Wash and the Sierrita Mountains coming up from Mexico.
Don Moi never bothered with Sasabe. He wasn’t a walker. For Don Moi, the conspiracy was a thing of buses: the Tres Estrellas and Transportes Norte del Pacífico bus lines. Then a quick night tossing and turning in a Sonoita or San Luis or Douglas motel. A wad of colorful Mexican pesos and a nice lunch, and back home on the bus. It was all Playboys and American cigarettes, a tequila and maybe some girls. And so long, boys! I’m going home!
The border was the problem of others.
The Sasabe sign, which many of the walkers can’t read, is the only thing Mexico is doing to try to stop them from crossing. The Mexican army patrols the borderlands, sort of, though nobody can find them, probably because the Coyotes pay the soldiers off. Coyote gangs have more money than the Mexico City sign painters. What do Mexican soldiers care if alambristas (wire-crossers) walk into Arizona? Any one of the soldiers might very well head north himself at some point.
For a while, the Mexican government offered the walkers survival kits with water and snacks, but the uproar from the United States put a stop to that. Americans saw these attempts at life-saving as a combination invitation to invade and complimentary picnic basket. They were further astonished to learn that Mexico City officials put condoms into the boxes. Of course, Mexico City claimed this was a gesture of deep consideration for the health of all involved. Gringos were deeply alarmed that the illegals were not just coming over to work, but to get laid. They’re coming for our daughters! They’re coming to make welfare babies! They’re coming to party, party, party!
Fifteen hundred walkers a day depart from under the Sasabe sign. The writer Charles Bowden, on a visit to Sasabe in 2003, counted five thousand walkers in one afternoon.
Although our Wellton 26 did not cross at the sign, their trail leads to the region surrounding it. The Lukeville/Organ Pipe border was too busy for them, so they scooted off to the side and tried to backtrack to the Lukeville paths once they were in the United States.
No matter where they entered, they had only to step over a drooping bit of wire fence, or across an invisible line in the dust. Near the legendary crossing at El Saguaro, there is often no fence at all. Along the Devil’s Highway near Tinajas Altas, there is nothing but a dry creek bed and a small sign telling walkers: Y’all better stay out or else we’ll be, like, really really bummed!
Tucson’s newspapers described their entry as having been “somewhere between Yuma and Nogales.” This is a safe bet—a cursory glance at a map will reveal that most of the state lies between Yuma and Nogales. Several accounts say they crossed at a tiny burg called Los Vidrios, not to be confused with the Vidrios Drag.
A woman named Ofelia, or Orelia (depends on who you ask), Alvarado runs a small truck stop at Los Vidrios. Many walkers stop at her store before they cross over. Near Mrs. Alvarado’s store are signs that warn walkers “USA Prohibido!” Walkers see them, scratch their heads, and continue. At best, the signs imply, in bad Spanish:
TO USE IS PROHIBITED!
To use what? The trail? The sign? The desert? Spanish? Nobody, it seems, told the Yanquis who put the signs up that in Mexico, “USA” is spelled “EEUU.”
Mrs. Alvarado never saw the Wellton 26. She told reporters that a young man had gone a few days before they did, and he’d returned, burned black and vomiting blood, after they’d left. He told her God was coming to get him.
So Los Vidrios, as generally reported, was not their crossing point.
Most of the survivors say they crossed at El Papalote. That would be a tiny scatter of wrecks and huts whose name translates as “the kite.?
?? The trail probably led them into the Quitobaquito Hills. These confusions and guesses should suggest why it’s so difficult to enforce immigration law on the border. Of the men confirmed to have survived from the group, none can agree on where, exactly, they entered the United States. Perhaps only one person knew where they were trying to go once they were here, and that was their Coyote.
From El Papalote, it seems like the myth of the big bad border is just a fairy tale. One step, and presto! You’re in the EEUU. Los Estados Unidos. The Yunaites Estaites. There’s nothing there. No helicopters, no trucks, no soldiers. There’s a tarantula, a creosote bush, a couple of beat saguaros dying of dry rot, some scattered bits of trash, old human and coyote turds in the bushes now mummified into little coal nuggets. Nothing.
The smugglers tell the walkers it’s just a day’s walk to their pickup point. If they are crossing into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, it’s literally a walk in the park. A couple of hours, heading north for Ajo, Arizona. Cold soda pop and a ride to work.
How bad can it be? A day of thirst, some physical struggle—they’ve lived like that all their lives. The place may be alien to them, but the situation feels like home. After all, they tell themselves, America’s a country with a state called Nuevo México. Other states are called Red, Snowy, Mountain, and Flowery; several of them were going to Flowery, and some of the others were going to Northern Caroline to see about making cigarettes. The state of Nuevo México even has a capital city called Holy Faith: Catholicism, New Mexico.
And then there’s the hilarious Chi-Cago. (“Piss.” And, “I Shit.”) It’s funny until they feel the cold of winter.
Illegal entry is the sole reason for Sasabe’s or El Papalote’s or Vidrios’s existence. The vans lined up under the spindly cottonwoods have driven from Altar, Sonora, full of walkers. Don Moi was quite familiar with Altar. The bus stopped there, and he often hit the cell phone to check with his bosses: should the walkers hop off in Altar and grab a guide for the Sasabe line, or should they go on to Sonoita, to take part in a more complex conspiracy? Several of our Wellton 26 stopped over in Altar, and it was the merest whim of the head Coyote that put the Yuma 14/Wellton 26 on the bus to Sonoita instead of in a wasted Ford van heading for Organ Pipe. Maybe the Big Man was watching MTV; maybe he was heading for the toilet, or looking for a smoke. He had his phone in one hand, he spoke one word, and on they went to their ordeal.