Five men, “burned nearly black” by the sun, stumble through a mountainous desert. The men, disoriented by dehydration and hyperthermia, “see God and devils” all around them—they have resorted to drinking their own urine to stay alive and are “beyond rational thought.” They imagine the lush landscapes of their homes as they tear into cacti, desperate for water. Their sense of direction hopelessly impaired, they walk westward toward Yuma.
Urrea begins the narrative “in media res,” or in the middle of the action, in order to set the scene of desolation and desperation in which the surviving members of the Wellton 26 have found themselves. Without any backstory to contextualize the action, readers are forced to inhabit the world of the story as these dehydrated travelers do: disoriented and without bearings.
The men are in the Cabeza Prieta (Dark-Head) National Wild Life Refuge, at the southernmost end of the US Air Force’s Barry Goldwater bombing range. Another more “terrible” stretch of desert cuts through the Cabeza Prieta—the Devil’s Highway. The narrator, Luís Alberto Urrea, notes that in ancient religious texts, “fallen angels were bound in chains and buried beneath a desert known as Desolation.” This stretch of desert, Urrea says, could be Desolation itself.
Urrea describes the mythic desolation of the area in which the men have become trapped, inviting readers to consider the notion that the Cabeza Prieta could be the legendary desert where fallen angels have been imprisoned for millennia. In this way, he imbues the terrain with an otherworldly quality from the outset, and gives his story mythic proportions.
The men see mirages and “deceptive” tricks of the landscape which urge them on toward an imagined oasis. There is no water or shade, and the men have been pricked with cactus spines and cut on rocks. They pass abandoned army tanks as they leave the mountain pass and face the flat plain of the preserve. The temperature is 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Urrea heightens the atmosphere of pain, suffering, and desolation in the Cabeza Prieta with the aim of exposing his readers (to the extent that it is possible to do so through language) to the horrors faced by the subjects of his novel and others like them.
The first white man known to die on the Devil’s Highway, Urrea writes, died on January 18th, 1541, though “as long as there have been people, there have been deaths in the western desert.” He claims that “desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature” have always been present on its trails, and that the Devil’s Highway is a place of “retribution,” not of salvation.
The Devil’s Highway, Urrea writes, has always had the mythic and seemingly vengeful atmosphere it possesses to this day. Innumerable lives have been claimed by this desert, in a manner similar to or even worse than the way the Wellton 26 are currently suffering. In other words, Urrea is suggesting that the story he is about tell is timeless.
Urrea recounts the myths of the people native to this land—the Tohono O’Odham tribe. Their creation myth tells the story of the birth of the Elder Brother, I’itoi, who watches over the desert from a windy cave and “resents uninvited visitors.” According to legend, an evil witch spirit, Ho’ok, hides in the mountains, and the mischievous coyote spirit Ban rules the plains. The myths of another local tribe, the Yaqui, speak of “tiny men” who live underground, and of how the devil, Yuku, once controlled all the corn that grew. Mexican “hoodoo” legends, too, are prevalent in the area, telling of the wailing ghost of a woman and the feral, vampiric wolves known as Chupacabras (“goat suckers”) that roam the night.
The area is rife with legends of mythic figures who control the elements of the desert and influence the passage of travelers who attempt to walk through it. Ancient myth melds with newer Mexican superstition in order to create a vast array of spirits—none of which, it seems, are concerned with the safety or the humanity of those who pass through their desert. Each story, it seems, is another way of accounting for the extreme hostility of the environment.
The landscape and wildlife are “noxious,” Urrea writes. What few plants live in the desert are spiked and dangerous, and the “poisonous and alien” wildlife includes rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows, tarantulas, coral snakes, Gila monsters, and even killer bees.
Even the natural world in this desert is cruel, harsh, and potentially fatal. Nothing about this land welcomes the people who visit it.
Other tribes, such as the Hohokam, have vanished from the region, though their etchings and ruins remain. Old footprints, some of which are “old beyond dating,” still mark the landscape, telling stories of “long-dead cowboys” and the “phantom Hohokam themselves.” Carefully arranged rock piles and boulders rolled into straight lines aim wanderers toward watering holes and mark ancient graves. Some rock piles have been placed by the Border Patrol signcutters, or trackers, who refuse to divulge what the piles signify.
The old meets with the new at some points in the desert—ancient etchings and ruins, with no one alive to bear witness to their meanings, have been co-opted by the Border Patrol—the force that now, despite all the legend and lore and all the unwelcoming wildlife, is what truly rules this landscape.
Little or no records were kept of the area before the arrival of white men, who had a “mania” for keeping records. As they “civiliz[ed]” the frontier and built the Wild West, they perhaps did not realize that they were not only writing their own history—they were writing the history of Mexico, as well.
This passage demonstrates how history is often thrust upon people by those who are attempting to colonize and “civilize” them—their humanity is erased, and their stories are never recorded.
The North American continent is broad, Urrea writes, and those who sought to conquer it moved west toward open land. In Mexico, a tall and narrow country, the open land lay in the north, and that is where the Europeans settling Mexico “hustled.” Urrea writes that “the drive northward is a white phenomenon.”
Urrea describes how the phenomenon of immigration northward out of Mexico began with the white settlers who colonized it—not with the original inhabitants of Mexico itself—thus pointing to another way in which the region’s rich history continues to influence it to this day.
Urrea travels back in time to the Sonoita (in Spanish, spelled Sonoyta) of 1541, which, even then, was “the unwilling host of killers and wanderers.” A Spanish conquistador called Melchior Díaz led a patrol through Sonoita, though the Spanish did not plan to settle there—they were fearful of the natives, whom they believed were “hostile” cannibals. Díaz was bound for the Sea of Cortez. He kept sheep at his settlement in a small brush corral, and wild dogs had been attacking them in the night. Díaz, miserable to be stuck in Sonoita, had slaughtered the native people of the region mercilessly. Urrea writes, “this rout of natives serves as the preface to the story of death that begins with Díaz.” As Díaz rode through his settlement one day, he noticed a dog in the sheep pen. He entered the pen, threw a lance at the dog, and then, somehow, impaled himself on his own weapon. It took twenty days for Díaz to die—twenty days until “the fallen angels of Desolation came out of the Cabeza Prieta, folded their hands over him, and smiled.”
The legend of Melchior Díaz is invoked here to demonstrate how even the most powerful conquistador was laid to waste by the harsh world of the Cabeza Prieta. Although his death was accidental, the combination of the hostile wildlife and terrain—and perhaps the spirits of the desert itself—ultimately claimed Díaz’s life. Thus, Urrea again suggests that the brutal environment of the desert has a will of its own—and that will is to crush the life of any human that dares to try to conquer it.
The land was haunted before Díaz’s death, Urrea writes, and continued to be haunted afterward by “Catholic apparitions” that plagued the tribes. As Jesuits infiltrated the area, the natives fought back against oppression, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that “the modern era of death really got rolling.” As the gold rush began, more and more white Arizonans and Texans died on the Devil’s Highway, and Urrea writes that their wagon-wheel tracks remain in the desert to this day.
By saying that the land of the desert has always been “haunted,” Urrea draws a parallel between white European colonizers and the vengeful spirits he has described. Only their tracks remain—but the tracks have lasted throughout the years, almost as a warning sign to those foolish enough to attempt to cross the desert after so many centuries of hauntings and horrors.
Urrea describes how “a source close to this story” once observed the titular Cabeza Prieta itself out in the desert. As Urrea’s “source” drove through the desert one “brutal” afternoon, he saw the ground split open, and a “black human head” rose up from the ground to laugh at the passing traveler.
In this passage, the Cabeza Prieta—according to Urrea’s “source”—comes to life in order to mock travelers. The dark head represents the spirit of the desert and its contempt for those who try to traverse it.
Urrea returns to his description of the five men lost in the desert. As they come upon a dirt road, they are unaware that it is called the Vidrios Drag. They are now praying to be found by the Migra, or the Border Patrol, whom they had “walked into hell trying to escape.” They cannot decide whether they should continue on the road or head for a nearby mountain range, and as they “shuffle around,” unable to make a decision in their exhausted state, a white truck approaches, and then men run toward it. A Border Patrol agent, Mike F., had been cutting for sign and, unable to find anything, was planning on turning around when he spotted the lost walkers.
Exhausted, delirious, and on the verge of death, these travelers now pray for an encounter with the Border Patrol—the very entity they hoped to evade when they endeavored to cross the border illegally. This complete reversal shows how desperate the brutal desert has made them.
Mike F. knows that people wandering the desert are almost always up to something, and believes that the more “casual and innocent” someone tries to look, the more dangerous they might be. Though these men don’t appear to be a threat, Mike F. gestures for the men to stay where they are and radios the nearby Wellton Station to tell them he has “five bodies on Vidrios Drag.” Bodies, Urrea says, are how Border Patrol agents often refer to living people. Among the other cruel nicknames for illegal aliens are “wets” and “tonks,” named for the sound of a flashlight smacking a human head.
In this passage, Urrea describes the ways in which the nicknames and code words the Border Patrol uses to describe the illegal immigrants they capture strips those individuals of their humanity, and focuses on “illegality” as their one defining trait. Calling living people “bodies” further betrays not just the prejudice of Border Patrol agents, but the fact that this desert, too, is capable of stripping anyone unlucky enough to cross it of their humanity.
There are stories all along the border of Border Patrol officers abusing their power—assaulting women they find, shooting coyotes, or smugglers, in the head. There are rumors that Texas Rangers handcuff the “illegals” they find and toss them into irrigation canals to drown. To immigrants, Urrea notes, there is no difference between the Border Patrol, the Rangers, and any other “hunt squad.” There is “ill will on all sides.”
The men believe they are rescued, but Urrea knows that in the backs of their minds they must also be frightened. He attempts to bear witness to this dichotomy, and to explain the fear and “ill will” that defines relations between the Border Patrol and the immigrants they often rescue from the desert.
The disoriented men tell Mike F. that there are somewhere between seventeen and seventy men lost in the desert behind them, all dying. Mike F. gives the men water, which they drink and regurgitate. The men continue to guzzle water as Mike F. informs the Wellton Station of their claims, and, on the other end of the radio, “the guys at Wellton [realize] the apocalypse had finally come.”
Urrea implies that the Wellton officers have been waiting for the “apocalypse”—that is, a cataclysmic and devastating event—and that it has at last arrived. The sheer number of men who might be lost in the desert is something that the Wellton station has never seen, and may not be prepared to deal with.
Southern Arizona, Urrea writes, has been divided into two Border Patrol sections. Fifteen hundred agents patrol the eastern Tuscon sector, and three hundred patrol Yuma. There is a “chaos of stupidity” which rules the border, and jurisdiction between Arizona and California is often blurred. Border security had been ramped up in the late nineties, but smaller, “rougher” places to cross had become “hot spots” in the wake of that reform. Two hundred thousand immigrants passed through just one part of the Tuscon sector each year, and just as many had died in the crossing. The “unofficial policy,” Urrea writes, was to let the dead lie where they had fallen and leave their remains uncollected in order to cut down on paperwork and avoid generating case files for remains that might be a hundred years old.
The “chaos of stupidity” which rules the border contributes to shoddy work on the part of the Border Patrol and an endless stream of deaths coming out of Mexico, as desperate immigrants attempt to cross the desert only to find themselves lost or abandoned in Desolation. The fact that the Border Patrol agents don’t even collect all the bodies they find—don’t even bear witness, officially and legally, to their deaths or their lives—demonstrates the volume of deaths which aren’t seen as “worthy” of witness or care.
Urrea writes that it would be difficult to find a Border Patrol agent in Arizona who had not encountered death. Many agents feel that the worst deaths are the young women and children, but many feel the “deepest rage” when illegals die after having been abandoned by their smugglers.
Although the Border Patrol is certainly problematic in the way it talks about the illegal immigrants it is charged with apprehending, Urrea is careful to show that Patrol officers are still able to recognize the humanity of immigrants, pointing out that they are often the only ones to bear witness to the horrors that take the lives of immigrants every day.
Urrea describes a day in the life of a Border Patrol officer in Wellton. Many drive between twenty and seventy miles to work; many are ex-military; all of them speak Spanish, and several are Mexican-American. Wellton Station, Urrea writes, is “considered a good place to work,” and notes that “the old boys there are plain-spoken and politically incorrect.” Border Patrol officers know they are disliked, and go to great lengths to avoid getting tangled up in trouble. Human rights groups pay close attention to Border Patrol, as evidenced by the fact that they are “constantly lodging complaints,” so agents take care to “watch [themselves]” around the immigrants they apprehend. Most agents patrol alone, and always bring plenty of water with them on their potentially dangerous routes, for themselves and for anyone they might apprehend. Some agents, for fun, shoot at old army tanks, rattlesnakes, and rabbits. Some even play pranks on the illegals they arrest.
By bearing witness to the lives and routines of the men who work the Wellton station, Urrea complicates his earlier characterization of Border Patrol officers as at best politically incorrect and at worst cruel individuals who discount the humanity of the “illegals” they find wandering the desert. Urrea is interested in bearing witness to the lives and experiences of all the players in the story he is telling. Although his book is far more sympathetic toward and focused on the people who attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border than those who patrol it, here he focuses on the Wellton agents in an effort to illuminate all sides of the issue.
Border agents create “drags” by attaching car tires to the backs of trucks and dragging them through the desert. When these strips of smoothed-over sand are disrupted by foot traffic, the Border Patrol is able to “cut sign”—they can see where an illegal might have tried to jump over the drag or brush their tracks away with a branch. Signcutters—or just “cutters”—know the land by heart, and can read it “like a text.” Along with surreptitiously placed sensors which send messages to base, displaced pebbles, twigs, and dirt (called “hither thither”) help to tell the story of a “walker’s” journey. Cutters can discern what time of night walkers crossed a drag by observing the movement of insects, lizards, and rats (“bug-sign”). Cutters move northward from drag to drag until they find one that is undisturbed. In this way, they can “box walkers in” between drags. The walkers Mike F. encountered had strayed so far from the drags that they were considered “off the map.”
Urrea reveals the vigilance at the core of work of the Border Patrol. The drags they create not only help agents track the walkers, they also tell the story of the walkers’ journey. Drags allow Border Patrol agents to tell where walkers are coming from, where they’re headed, and what their condition is. Urrea, who is himself very interested in the journeys of those who attempt to cross this desert, is all too aware of the ways in which these histories are often impossible to recover. Therefore, he’s intensely interested in the methodologies employed by Border Patrol to “read” the landscape for signs of the immigrants’ comings and goings, which are otherwise so often swallowed by the desert and lost to history, leaving the “illegals” nameless.
As signcutters worked backwards from the Vidrios Drag, they began to find corpses. Fourteen men had died, and twelve more men were rescued alive. The dead were referred to as the Yuma 14, and as the media got hold of the story, everyone wanted to know what had happened. The tracks, Urrea says, told the story of the men’s journey.
The Border Patrol agents were able to reconstruct the stories of the dead through their tracks—the only remaining connection to the men’s lives and humanity.
Some Wellton officers resent that the dead are called, to this day, the “Yuma 14.” One officer, Officer Friendly, insists that they should be called the Wellton 14—but because walkers are identified by sector, Wellton’s role in the investigation was erased. The Wellton 26, Friendly concludes, is the proper name for the men who were found.
The desire to “claim” the dead as their property, so to speak, belies the desire of the Wellton station to have their side of the story heard.
Urrea describes the “groaning shelves” of the Tuscon consulate, where all the paperwork of the Wellton 26 was processed. There were so many reports that they were difficult to file, especially as the reports came in during the time of year known as “death season.” Not just Mexicans die crossing the border—Chinese and Russian refugees enter the U.S. this way, too, or are otherwise smuggled through Canada. Muslim missionaries in southern Mexico who can “pass” as Mexicans often come over the border, as well, and many Border Patrol officers are suspicious that al Qaeda members—possibly coming from a training ground somewhere in Brazil—are being brought across after paying smugglers off at an astounding price of fifty thousand dollars apiece.
In this passage Urrea bears witness to the lesser-known stories of those who cross the border. There are many people who are desperate for passage into the U.S.—people who come from everywhere, and who want to cross the border for a vast array of reasons—whose stories are virtually unknown to history. Urrea thus shows that the reality on the border is far more complex than many may understand.
Urrea recalls sorting through the postmortem packets for each of the Yuma 14. The portraits of their corpses reveal terrifying, withered faces, and Urrea wonders if these portraits are the first photographs the men have ever “posed” for. The victims’ belongings are also enclosed in their packets. Urrea notes that all the bags in which these belongings are kept stink of death, and that the women working at the Consulate light candles to disguise the stench.
In bearing witness to the deaths of the Yuma 14, Urrea is also, in a way, able to bear witness to their lives. The people who work at the Consulate have such a massive volume of files that they are unable to give proper care and respect to each life that is documented there. The candles represent the ways in which they must mask the “stench of death” which pervades not just their workspace, but their lives.
Some of the Wellton 26, Urrea writes, were indigenous, making Spanish their second language. Most them came from the tropical Southern Mexico state of Veracruz, and most were farmers and coffee-growers. Some survivors insist to this day that many more men were on their journey than were ever found, and that their remains are still lying in the desert. Urrea writes that “what we take for granted in the United States as being Mexican, to those from southern Mexico, is almost completely foreign,” and that these rural Mexicans were thus “aliens before they ever crossed the line.”
In illustrating the ways in which the Wellton 26 were “aliens before they ever crossed the [border]line,” Urrea sets up the next section of his text, which delves into the circumstances of isolation, desolation, and desperation which led the men to embark on this dangerous journey through one of the most hostile regions in the world.