The doctors at the Yuma Medical Center, on the morning of May 23rd, were overwhelmed by the number of bodies arriving. The Border Patrol has attempted to “palm the survivors off on the hospital in Yuma without arresting them,” in order to ensure that the medical bills will be the hospital’s responsibility, and not the government’s. (Illegal immigrants, Urrea writes, make up 23% of unpaid bills in hospitals throughout the southwest.) One of the 26’s doctors, David Haynes, told reporters that the men arrived looking a lot like Ancient Egyptian mummies. Nine men were in fair condition, two were serious, and one was critical. The men were placed in rooms, sometimes together and sometimes alone, and interrogations began.
The severity of the injuries and trauma the men sustained is palpable as they are assessed by doctors at a local hospital. Even in this moment of rescue, there are unseen factors and hidden agendas at play, as the various officials involved play with the walkers’ fates based on what is most convenient for the government.
By 11:30 a.m. on the 23rd, Rita Vargas—the Mexican consul in Calexico—is on the case. Because Yuma, “and by extension Wellton,” had no consulate at the time, Vargas was responsible for the situation, and within minutes of receiving a phone call from Yuma, she had begun to “hunt down Mexican authorities all over the world.” Urrea describes Vargas as “charming and funny” but decidedly “no-nonsense,” and unafraid to “stand up to both the Border Patrol and her superiors.” An intrepid and patient woman, she had, years before, led an investigation which revealed that a Border Police officer had shot a group of walkers in the back, despite having claimed that he acted in self-defense.
Urrea conveys Vargas’s commitment to justice and humanity by relaying an anecdote in which she stood up for what was right rather than what was easy. As Vargas springs into action, the entire Mexican government is informed of the situation in Yuma, demonstrating the unprecedented nature of such a large event on the border.
As the police interrogations begin, the men are uncertain of what they should say—and some are still acting insane from the walk. Nahum identifies Mendez, “the guy with the rooster hair,” as the pollero who abandoned them, despite refusing to give any details of his and his companions’ journey to and across the border. The cops make their way through interrogations of the various survivors, collecting what testimony they can—all of which, of course, incriminates Mendez.
The men begin to share what they have witnessed with the investigators, and finally, their stories—and by proxy, their humanity—are seen as worthy of consideration and useful.
Rita Vargas arrives to supervise the police interrogations, while still hounding Mexican officials and warning them to expect “many bodies.” The survivors, all officially arrested now, will be rehydrated and stabilized, and then sent to Phoenix to await further interrogation and processing. They are suddenly “paid professional narrators,” and, realizing that they would be allowed to stay as long as they continued to tell their stories, they begin to “embellish and expand” the story of their journey through the desert.
As the men realize that their status as storytellers of the “myth” of their ordeal will grant them temporary stay and more privileges, they commit to telling their stories in full. In this way, Urrea shows the process by which true stories quickly become mythologized.
Justice catches up with Mendez when the U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona vows to take him down. Mendez composes a letter expressing his contrition, apologizing to the living and the dead, and attempting to declare his innocence. The letter is ineffective, and the U.S. attorney concludes that Mendez recklessly deceived and endangered the group, and that “the inherent risks of this undertaking were foreseeable” to Mendez even if they were not to the walkers.
As Mendez is charged, he attempts once again to save himself by spinning a myth of his own innocence and suffering. Once again, his self-centeredness backfires, and the courts are able to see clearly through his façade of naïveté.
The bodies of the dead are shipped to medical examiners in Tuscon. Rita Vargas accompanies them. Urrea describes the “cool, smooth, speedy” ride the bodies take. It is relaxed and out of the way of the harsh sun, and “the entire trip that had killed them” took only a couple of hours by car. Urrea describes the rustling of the body bags within the cool, dark car as sighs of relief at the fact that, finally, the bodies will soon be “going home.”
Rita Vargas’s commitment to justice and to honoring the humanity of the dead is evidenced in this passage as she accompanies them on each step of their journey, bearing witness to them and to their suffering even in death.