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The Devil s Highway A True Story 8


  In the summer of 2002, an idiot pollero driver with twenty-three pollos on board went the wrong way on Interstate 8 in California. Lights out. He was trying to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint. His van crashed head-on into a Ford Explorer and sent it flying off an embankment, killing Larry Baca and nearly killing his fiancée. The hurtling van demolished four cars before finally stopping, twisted beyond description. This kind of smash-up bears a wry acronym among law enforcement wags: DWM (Driving While Mexican).

  At least the driver of the van had the good taste to die for his sins. Four of his pollos also died—one of the dead was a Brazilian, and other Brazilians are believed to have been crammed into the van. Some reports list an astonishing thirty-three riders. (This brings to mind the hoary old joke: Q. Why did Santa Ana only take six thousand troops to the Alamo? A. Because he only had one Chevy!)

  The guía that time was a twenty-five-year-old former Mexican field worker named Alfredo Alvarez Coronado. He was paid by “an organization” that gave him the cut-rate salary of three hundred dollars per load. Our man Mendez would have scoffed at that minimum-wage paycheck, but Alfredo Alvarez said he earned so little in Mexico—a hundred pesos a day (about ten dollars)—that the pollero work was a windfall. One walk, one month’s salary.

  Alfredo’s walkers had been charged between thirteen hundred and fifteen hundred dollars a head for the hike-and-ride. The drivers in this particular gang were suspected of at least eight other dangerous wrong-way drives on California freeways. Thirty-one of the illegals from the crash ended up in the hospital. It can be fairly assumed that the “organization” that lured them across did not volunteer to pay these hospital bills.

  Unfortunate third-class passengers who can’t afford a ride on a car seat are locked in the trunk. Some of them are actually strapped to the engine blocks. In the trade, these rides are known as “coffin-loads.”

  I want you to know that since my childhood my parents have always been of very low economical resources. My parents had to make great efforts just to feed us each day. I was forced to leave school because they didn’t have enough economic means to send all four of us children to school. So I decided to leave my family and look for work, and make good money to help my family make ends meet and buy them a house, since they don’t own their own home. I worked legitimately at a factory making roof tiles in Nogales, Sonora. The wages were truly very low, and that was my reason for getting involved in the smuggling business.

  It didn’t take long for El Negro’s agents to find Mendez—he was exactly like the walkers he would later lead. Poor, alone, looking for a better life, willing to do what it takes. Like them, he was recruited. Like them, he was welcome to die for the Cercas brothers. There were many more waiting to take his place. There were so many more of him that he didn’t even exist.

  Mendez and the walkers didn’t know they were invisible: on the Devil’s Highway, you had to almost die for anybody to notice your face.

  5

  Jesús Walks Among Us

  In the sheriff’s department videos, the survivors’ faces are almost black against the stark white hospital pillows. The camera zooms in close to them. Their features are overwhelmed by the glare. They’re nearly invisible in the brutal light.

  They wear ridiculous flowered hospital gowns. Many have oxygen hoses plugged into their noses. They are all still weak. Some have IV bottles leaking saline into their veins. A few of them have lips so swollen and cracked that they can barely talk. They hold wadded cloths to their mouths to catch the drool that keeps leaking out. During one interview, a nurse bursts in and says, “We need urine.” The man looks down at her and nods, then tries to keep talking as she collects his fluids.

  They’re in shock. They can’t spell their own names. They can’t spell the names of the villages and ranches they came from. They look to the deputies, as if the Americans can help them remember the letters. They don’t know what day it is. They don’t know the name of where they were. When they mention Sonoita, they call it “Sonorita,” or Little Sonora.

  “Do you know which direction you traveled?” the sheriff asks one man.

  He thinks for a moment, then nods.

  “Yes. I remember,” he says.

  He gestures straight ahead with one hand.

  “That way,” he says.

  Do you know who the Coyotes are?

  “I don’t know who they are.”

  Are they here in the hospital?

  (Looking around.) “Are they here in the hospital?”

  Okay. When you crossed from Sonoita, who was leading you?

  “I don’t know who was leading us.”

  How much did you pay?

  “I didn’t pay anything to anybody.”

  Oh, sure, they brought you for free.

  (Looks away.) “Uhhh … well … you know. It was handled by the legendary Negro. It was probably paid by my brother.”

  Is he here?

  “My brother’s here?”

  Did he cross with you?

  “My brother? I grew up with him.”

  How do we get in touch with this legendary Negro?

  “Oh, fuck.”

  How old is he?

  “How am I supposed to know how old he is?”

  How old was the guide?

  “Normal. He was a regular age.”

  What did he look like?

  “He had that stupid red punk-rock haircut hanging down in front.”

  Jesús had once come from the South, too. He first came north from Guadalajara, looking for work. No one knows if he imagined crossing illegally or not, but whether he crossed over or stayed in the Mexican border region, he would earn more money there than he would at home. He had wanted to buy his mother a house. He had kicked around for a while, never made it into the United States if that was his plan, and somehow ended up in Nogales, Sonora. It’s a lively little town just across the line from the somnambulant burg of Nogales, Arizona. Straight down I-19 from Tucson.

  Jesús had worked in a brickyard, the San Antonio tileworks in sunburned Colonia Virreyes. He had cursed his fate, looking for a way out. This was no way to live, and it certainly wasn’t going to get him a Cadillac or his mama a house. For whatever reason, he hadn’t wanted to get into the drug smuggling world. And he had shied away from the teeming world of possibility that was Tijuana. Coming to Nogales in search of success had not been a sign of tactical genius.

  In the winter of 2000, he met Rodrigo Maradona, who worked the mud beside him. They hung out socially, became friends. Maradona was a real hustler, moonlighting after his long days in the tileworks at an altogether more interesting job.

  In later testimony, as his story shifted, Rooster Boy said Chespiro himself appeared like the devil in the sunny brickyard. Chespiro appeared and whispered temptations in his ear. It’s one of the small mysteries of the story. A little more of that border fogbank.

  Maradona was eighteen. Thin. He had a badass tattoo of Christ on his chest. Another “chico banda,” rockin’ dude. No doubt Jesús let Maradona know that he was aching to make some real money. Well, well, well! It just so happened that Maradona was a part-time Coyote! And he was making great money. He was earning a hundred dollars U.S. for each pollo he took across the line.

  A hundred dollars! Shit, brother, Jesús wasn’t making a hundred dollars a week!

  A hundred dollars a week! No seas pendejo, Chuy! Maradona was making a thousand dollars a week!

  The beer sloshed, the smoke rose.

  Jesús would sure like to get into some pinche money like that.

  Maradona told him he could be living large, any time.

  It was sounding good. Maradona told him stories—the thrill of outfoxing the goddamned Migra, the excitement of finding yourself alone in the desert with some fine foxy lady, the stuff you could buy. The Coyotes and polleros didn’t call each other Coyotes. That was one of the first things Jesús had to do if he didn’t want to sound like the Guadalajara hick that he was. He had to get with
it. He had to agarra la onda, buey. He was ready to get “la onda.” Okay, Maradona told him—polleros called each other “gangsters.”

  Not gang-bangers, who were “pandilleros”; not thieves, who were “rateros”; and not bandits, who were “bajaderos.” Honest to God Tony Montana Scarface gangsters. Cars, money, molls, gold rings. And they indulged their vices to the hilt. They liked their dope (mota), and they liked getting drunk (andando pedo) and they loved their dog fights and their cockfights. It was heady. One thing was for sure. No full-time gangster ever had adobe caked under his nails.

  Maradona wove the web.

  There was only one problem. Nogales was dying. The Migra had the desert sector near town shut down tight. They had been adapting the El Paso formula: big new fences, some kind of human radar, night vision, and more cops. The bastards parked their trucks in a line, each truck in sight of the next, and they just sat there. They watched for hours, drinking sodas, clicking their radios. Everybody in Nogales said they handcuffed morras (girls) in the trucks and felt their chi-chis. Pinche Migra!

  So right now, the action was focusing out west, a mean town below the Yuma border called San Luis Río Colorado.

  Orale, it sucked, all right? The dying salty remnant of the Colorado River oozed by, picking up green chemicals and sewage as it went down to the Sea of Cortez. But you could hop a fence right into orange groves in one part of town, and there was Yuma, which was ten thousand times more interesting than Nogales. Los Angeles was in striking distance. It was all happening in San Luis.

  Maradona was hooked up with a major operation there. He was heading out soon on a Tres Estrellas bus. All Jesús had to do was say the word, and he could be a Yuma gangster too.

  Jesús basically said: What are we waiting for?

  Jesús was of regular size, neither tall, nor overly heavy. He had a rabbit tattooed on his right arm. And then there was that haircut.

  His haircut was a classic “rockero” or “banda” style. He probably hadn’t seen much MTV, but he had seen the Mexican TV shows that featured pop bands like Maná. Shows like Control and Caliente. Maybe the gangsters had weenie roasts at the big man’s house, and maybe they fired up the satellite dish and watched TRL and Oz and Wrestlemania together.

  Most of the stuff on Sonoran radio was crap —Norteño accordion music and lame cumbias filtered up from the tropics. Jesús didn’t look like those groups, with their polyester two-tone or even three-tone cowboy suits. He certainly didn’t dress like those guys. Jesús looked like El Tri, or Molotov. Jesús looked cool.

  And he liked his music, music that was getting bolder and bolder. Even the ranchero stuff was turning outlaw—polkas and ballads sang of the virtues of narcos and Coyotes. The culture had common enemies: oppression, poverty, cops, “the government,” the Border Patrol, “La Migra.” (Oddly, much border slang made law enforcement feminine: la chota, la placa, la Migra.) Rock songs regularly took the governments of both the United States and Mexico to task, demanding human rights, indigenous rights, political parity, revolution, even ecological responsibility. Like all rock, some songs also enthusiastically advocated smoking pot, getting drunk, and getting laid.

  And Jesús and his friends were listening. The banda kids, a terror to the staid fathers of Mexico, were becoming self-educated through a kind of samizdat musical network. Mexican bands, Latin American bands, and even Chicano bands from Los Angeles were throwing down challenges in every genre—pop, rap, techno, metal, el punk. What didn’t get on the radio rattled from block-party boom boxes and pirated tapes. Deejays in chichi bars played the rude stuff to the delight of partiers and the indifference of the strippers.

  Some of the songs were unbelievably bold.

  The sly cultural warriors of Tijuana No!, for example, released a rousing rap, “Stolen at Gunpoint”:

  Fuck La Migra,

  And the policía!

  Fuck John Wayne,

  I look up to Pancho Villa!

  The chorus cried:

  California

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  Arizona

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  Texas

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  Nuevo México

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  El Alamo

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  Aztlán

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  Puerto Rico

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  América

  Stolen at gunpoint!

  We gonna get it back …

  Aztlán (“The Place of the Reeds”) was the traditional home of the Aztecs, a possibly mythical motherland from which the tribe ventured forth on a one-hundred-year walk. It was a land to the north of Mexico City. Chicanos recognize Aztlán as being in the American southwest, and it came to represent the stomping ground of “La Chicanada,” or the entirety of the Hispanic west. The Aztecs (Mexica, pronounced “Meshica,” hence, “Chicano”) walked south, out of the deserts, on their way to what would become Mexico City. They apparently walked across the Devil’s Highway on their way home.

  We gonna get it back …

  In this milieu, it was quite attractive to be a Coyote. You could tell yourself you were a kind of civil rights activist, a young Zapata liberator of the poor and the downtrodden. In short, a revolutionary. Coyote-as-Che. Jesús certainly fed himself these ideas, if his testimony is to be believed.

  Being a Coyote, even a lowly guía, was also muy macho. Jesús had suddenly gone from being a put-upon poor boy making bricks in the wicked Sonoran heat to being an outlaw. He was Lil’ Pancho Villa. He had the immense forces of the United States federal government after him. His own government was putting up signs asking him to stop.

  And he had money. He had a crib. He had a good-looking morra to play house with. He had dangerous men watching his back. He had a cell phone. He had songs being sung about him on the radio and in the cantinas.

  He even had a patron saint of illegals watching over his endeavor.

  Toribio Romo was originally a priest from Jalisco. He was shot in one of the many revolts that dot Mexican history. His folk power is ascendant. There are Saint Toribio prayer books that migrants carry with them. There are Saint Toribio T-shirts, religious pictures, and scapulars. And there are tales of Saint Toribio’s amazing miracles—heavenly interventions: migrants finding water, migrants escaping certain death, migrants outwitting the Migra, lost migrants being delivered unto the pickup point. Selah.

  The famous immigrant’s prayer that graces the Saint Toribio’s prayer book has even made it into the New York Times. It’s a kind of United Nations affirmation: “I believe I am a citizen of the world, and of a church without borders.” See that? No borders! God said so!

  Vamonos, muchachos: next stop, Chi-Cago.

  Another prayer: Blessed be the outlaws. Living outside the law was as dizzying as tequila.

  Jesús went into the desert a boy, and he was led to believe the rigors of El Negro’s world would make him a man.

  The forces arrayed against Jesús and Saint Toribio were formidable.

  American pundits regularly insist that the border needs to be militarized. In a very real way, much of the Devil’s Highway region is militarized. The Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range sprawls between the Gila Mountains to the far west and the Sand Tank Mountains to the east. One of the mountains on the base, ironically enough known as Coyote Peak, is a landmark for smugglers. If you make it to Coyote Peak, you are only miles from I-8 and the turgid waters of the irrigation canals. In the east end of the basin, north of the base, a string of mountains known as the ABCs (Antelope, Baker, Copper) lead you north to salvation. But Marines share the vast base with the jet jockeys, and they prowl the desert in camo Humvees. Air National Guard aircraft fly over from Tucson. Helicopters, jets, bombers. UFOs.

  Beside the bombing range lies the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Organ Pipe has the dubious honor of being known as the most dangerous national park in America. Drug and human smugglers use
it as a freeway, and officers are at risk every day of their assignments. Law is represented there by armed rangers and the federal Cactus Cops, the officers of the Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and Bureau of Land Management.

  Farther to the east of Organ Pipe is the Tohono O’Odham reservation, patrolled by tribal police. South of Yuma, it’s the Cocopah Reservation. Between Yuma and Ajo, it’s 150 miles of sheriff’s territory. East of this area is the Pinal Air Park, a weird landing strip full of bloated cargo jets that shimmer in the heat waves. Local folklore suggests that Pinal is also home to a CIA airbase.

  All along the line, the tireless Border Patrol drives, flies, walks. They hit the trails on small ATVs like weekend dune buggy enthusiasts. The heroic BORSTAR rescuers hunt for people in trouble. The secretive BORTAC SWAT troops (called “the hunter-killers” by one Cactus Cop) go on their covert missions. A legendary unit of Customs flits in and out of the night like ghosts, the “Shadow Wolves,” Native American trackers who hunt down drug runners. Added to the mix is the DEA, often belittled by local cops: “DEA means Don’t Expect Anything.” BLM cops. And at each border crossing are the border guards (not, the Border Patrol wants you to know, what they do)—INS agents.

  There are also big angry white men in Jeeps, two separate groups of “citizen” border watchers working the western desert outside of Tucson. And the human rights groups are also wandering around, hoping to save dying walkers and placing water jugs on the trails. Then there are the prospectors, drug smugglers, journalists, scientists, FBI, park rangers, Park Service cops, BLM agents, military police, ranchers, Indians, outlaw biker gangs. Scattered here and there are small groups of militias and “patriot militias,” their trailers pulled into secure configurations, upside-down American flags and black MIA/POW flags and the occasional Jolly Roger fluttering in the wind.