The Mexican president, Vicente Fox, sends the Mexican chief of Migratory Affairs, the poet Juan Hernandez, to meet with the survivors. Hernandez tells them that they are “heroes of the republic.” Meanwhile, American guards keep watch over Mendez like “valuable prey.” Mendez knows his life is over, though he is only nineteen years old. Earlier, he refused to rat out any of the Cercas gang, and takes pride in his loyalty, though he feels more and more that “the raised bars of his hospital bed look like the bars of a jail cell.”
Mendez’s loyalty to the Cercas gang outweighs his own desire for freedom. He knows his life is “over,” and that he is nothing more than “prey” now, just like the “cooked chickens” he abandoned in the desert.
Medical examiners confirm that the Yuma 14 died of exposure and hyperthermia, and then they are taken to a funeral home. Preparing the bodies for shipment costs over a thousand dollars per body, not including the cost of coffins and shipping trays. The total cost the dead have incurred is twenty-five thousand dollars, and they have not even been sent home yet.
The Yuma 14 are being treated humanely and spared no expense in death—whereas in life, many of them lived desperate and impoverished existences in which their humanity was constantly denied or discounted.
The dead are flown home to Veracruz. When the plane lands and begins taxiing to the terminals, Vargas notices that there are crowds of people waiting on the tarmac. Veracruz had “created a public relations mega-event out of the return of their martyred heroes.” The governor is in attendance, as are reporters, photographers, and bands. As she deplanes, Vargas is overtaken by the surging crowds, and as she attempts to stand back up she watches each coffin carried from the plane and placed inside the hearses waiting for them. Vargas meets with the Yuma 14’s families, and watches as a young woman reads a prepared statement for the cameras on their behalf. Vargas is disgusted with the way that “every moment of the arrival had been stage managed.” At her hotel that night, unable to sleep, Vargas calculates that the flight for the dead had cost sixty-eight thousand dollars, and wonders what would have happened “if somebody had simply invested that amount in their villages to begin with.”
The combination of very real grief on the part of the Mexican people and the sensationalism of the ordeal on the part of the Mexican government frustrates and deeply upsets Rita Vargas, who is left to wonder what these men’s lives—and the lives of millions of Mexicans—would look like if the world simply recognized their humanity and invested in their lives and futures instead of footing the bill for such an elaborate funereal procession.
The survivors “ping-pong” through the system. Mendez goes to jail in Phoenix, and continues to stonewall interviewers—even agents from the Mexican government. His appointed lawyer attempts to construct a case on his behalf, trying to imply that the Border Patrol agents who lit the walkers up at Bluebird Pass did so intentionally, and were the same agents who rescued the men in the desert at the end of their ordeal. He paints a picture of “a vast borderland conspiracy at work.” Mendez likes his defender’s approach, and continues to insist that, in taking his walkers’ money, he had only set out to save them, insisting that he isn’t like all the other polleros who leave their pollos to die. Urrea writes that when news of Mendez’s statements reached officials in Wellton, “some of them laughed out loud.”
Mendez continues to attempt to save himself, even if his lawyer’s allegations are far from the truth. His journey has never been about bearing witness to justice or the truth—it has only ever been about Mendez and Mendez alone.
Meanwhile, the survivors continue to share the details of their ordeal, and “an unprecedented wave of investigation” is launched in Mexico. Members and associates of the Cercas gang are caught and brought down. El Negro escapes, but is now a wanted man.
As the world bears witness to the scope of the devastation, trauma, and loss of life that have taken place as a result of this ordeal, an investigation of “unprecedented” scale begins to take place, raising the question of whether any lasting change will finally come about in the aftermath of this catastrophe.
In November, Mendez pleads guilty to 25 counts of smuggling. Each count carries a heavy fine, and a possible death penalty. In exchange for avoiding the maximum death penalty, Mendez admits to everything.
Mendez saves himself from the death penalty by confessing. He folds under pressure and fear of the loss of his own life.
The survivors stick together and demand immunity in exchange for their testimony. Nahum and his relatives are able to stay in Phoenix, and are given an apartment and gainful employment in a meat-packing plant out of the hot sun.
The public importance of what the survivors went through is affirmed as they are given lives and opportunities based on the value of their testimony.
Urrea writes that, today, “the filth and depravity of the border churns ahead in a parade of horrors,” though, for a moment, there was a glimmer of hope as Presidents Fox and Bush discussed the potential for border reform. The events of 9/11, however, derailed any such possibility. As the U.S. went to war, many Border Patrol agents became air marshals and enlisted in the army. Waves of illegal immigrants continued to flood over the border as the Border Patrol thinned.
The letdown after the promise of border reform has led to a seeming increase in depravity and horror along the border. As the world turned its attention to the Middle East, border issues completely fell by the wayside.
Gang and cartel violence continues along the border, Urrea writes, and quotes the Mexican consul in Tucson asserting that “the media only cares about the Yuma 14 because of the large numbers,” and continues to ignore the everyday, individual tragedy and violence that still occurs. American Border Patrol agents are shot by warring drug smugglers, pollos bake alive in the trunks of cars as they attempt to cross the border, FBI agents are beaten to death by Mexican train robbers, a Mexican immigrant drowns “on live television trying to swim across the Rio Grande.” Urrea writes that “the Yuma 14 changed nothing, and they changed everything.”
The Yuma 14, and the public attention their story received, was important, but the often just-as-horrific stories that continue to unfold along the border each and every day are just as important and just as worthy of attention. The Yuma 14’s deaths were a major opportunity for reform and rebuilding, but instead of leading to lasting change, violence has, if anything, gotten even worse.
Yuma and Wellton Border Patrol understood that they needed to take a proactive rather than reactive stance on saving the lives of those who become lost on the Devil’s Highway. They upped the number of BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue) agents on patrol, brought portable army buildings right to the middle of the Devil’s Highway, and designed “lifesaving towers” which serve as emergency checkpoints. Lost walkers who come upon the tall, glimmering towers—which are visible day and night—are greeted with instruction in Spanish and in English advising them to push a button in order to summon the Border Patrol, who will arrive in one hour or less. In the year after the Yuma 14, Urrea writes, the Yuma sector “managed to reduce the season’s death rate to nine.”
The small reforms that have happened along the Arizona border are important and life-saving. The impact of the Yuma 14’s stories made a difference along this stretch of the border, and has helped their story from being repeated as frequently or as horrifically, but these measures do nothing to change the conditions which would lead a person to cross the border illegally, nor to change the politically reality for illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Urrea considers the hard facts and figures of immigration. Far fewer Mexicans are coming over the border than “politicians and talk show hosts” would have Americans believe. Even illegal workers pay their taxes by default—the numbers are shaved off their paychecks automatically—and American jobs are not at risk. In fact, studies reveal that Arizona “gets $8 billion in economic impact annually from the relationship with Mexico.”
Urrea wants his audience to understand that rhetoric which claims that Mexican immigrants are “stealing jobs” or hindering the American economy or the American identity are not only false but damaging. This kind of thinking only perpetuates and deepens horror stories like that of the Yuma 14.
Back in the Tuscon consulate’s office, the afternoon grows late. The Yuma 14’s personal effects are filed away “to be forgotten” as a woman in search of her missing husband, despondent, hears that he has been found dead and is currently “on the slab.” A secretary comforts her, asking her to forgive the employees at the consul for their cold, matter-of-fact manner—“We deal with death so often in here that we forget,” she says, and another employee takes the crying woman by the arm to go see her husband’s body. The secretary blows out the candles which were lit to ward off the stink of death that emanated from the Yuma 14’s effects as dusk falls outside.
Urrea ends the book on a fairly pessimistic note, as he considers the ways in which deaths like the Yuma 14’s have become so commonplace that they no longer have a real effect on the people who deal with the aftermath of such deaths every single day. He implies that it is perhaps unwise for these stories to become so frequently told and sensationalized that they come to seem dull or routine.