Acclaimed writer Luís Alberto Urrea tells the story of the Wellton 26 (sometimes referred to as the Yuma 14), a group of illegal immigrants, mostly from the impoverished southern Mexican state of Veracruz, who became lost in the treacherous Yuma desert after a series of fatal mistakes made by their smuggler, or pollero, Jesús “Mendez” Lopez Ramos.
Urrea begins by recounting briefly some of the history of the “haunted” desert which is home to the Cabeza Prieta (or “dark-head”) National Wildlife Refuge, and the particularly treacherous strip of desert known as the Devil’s Highway. Urrea invokes ancient religious texts which mention a vast desert known as Desolation, beneath which all of the fallen angels are buried. Urrea posits that the Cabeza Prieta could be—and, to the Wellton 26, most certainly was—Desolation itself, a cursed and vengeful landscape which tortures and swallows all those who pass through it. Urrea then explains the culture and practices of the U.S. Border Patrol office in Wellton, Arizona. He describes the ways in which the agents “cut for sign,” or search for evidence of illegals in the desert, by paying close attention to the footprints and other detritus that immigrants leave behind on drags of smoothed-over sand created by Border Patrol agents. The Border Patrol rap is often monotonous and tiresome, and the agents are often distrustful of and cruel toward the illegal immigrants they apprehend out in the Yuma desert. Nonetheless, agents are sensitive to the death they encounter in their jobs, and find the most heinous crimes committed along the border to be the crimes of smugglers who abandon their groups of walkers in the desert.
Urrea describes the lives of several members of the Wellton 26 back in their home state of Veracruz, and the process by which they were recruited for the journey. Don Moi Garcia, a fixer for the notorious Cercas border gang, lured men with the promise of fortune and the ability to provide financially for their families. He then extorted large amounts of money from each of them, either up-front or in the form of loans, which he planned to collect by whatever means necessary with the help of his shadowy boss, Chespiro.
Meanwhile, up at the border, the teenager who would become the men’s pollero, or smuggler, Jesús Lopez Ramos, enjoys the “gangster” lifestyle he has made for himself with the help of his smuggler friend, Maradona, who helped get him involved in the Cercas gang’s business of border-crossing. Jesús is at the very bottom of the Cercas gang’s pecking order, and is therefore seen as just as disposable as the “pollos,” or immigrants, he leads across the border—though he himself feels that he is both a modern-day revolutionary and a true gangster.
Don Moi shepherds the men he has gathered from Veracruz to the northern border town of Sonoyta on a bus. He stashes the men in a fleabag motel, then a cramped safehouse, and absconds back to Veracruz, leaving the pollos to their fates. On May 19th, the day their journey is to begin, Jesús—using his codename, Mendez—and two associates known only as Santos and Lauro, collect the men from their safehouse and bring them to a bus station. There, Mendez bribes a bus driver to take the group to the border. Once dropped off, the men cross the border on foot, and take a van (driven by the shady El Negro, another member of the Cercas gang) to the start of their trail. The group is ahead of schedule—it is still light out. Rather than wait until dark, Mendez leads the group into the scorching, triple-digit temperatures of the desert.
The walk is difficult but going fine when, close to midnight, the walkers are suddenly blinded by bright lights. Mendez, uncharacteristically frightened, informs his pollos that la Migra—the Border Patrol—has come for them, and the entire group scatters into the brush, losing track of their spot on the trail. After Mendez feels there is no danger, he leads his group onward—either unaware of, or afraid to admit, the fact that he has led his group into “uncharted territory.” As the group wanders through the night, they stray farther and farther off-course.
On the second day of their journey, the men, now hopelessly lost, begin to experience the early stages of heat death, or hyperthermia—a brutal and painful way to die, and the fate of many unfortunate souls who become lost in the desert. As water runs out and night approaches, Mendez leads his group even further into Desolation, now marching southwest. All the while, Mendez assures his pollos that there are only “a few more miles” to go. By the following morning, Mendez himself is convinced that the group is doomed. The group makes a new plan: Mendez will strike out on his own with one of his associates, Lauro, and bring back water, help, or both. Mendez likely demanded American dollars from his walkers in order to cover the costs of water or transportation, and left them behind with instructions to await his return.
Hours later, it becomes clear to the men that Mendez is not returning for them. They move forward on their own, walking into the night. By the following morning, having walked only ten miles in twelve hours, the first members of their group begin to die, and the men show signs of extreme disorientation. They resort to drinking their own urine and eating cacti in order to stave off the effects of dehydration, but it is clear that if they do not find help soon, they will all die. Mendez and Lauro struggle through the desert on their own until Lauro, exhausted, lies down to sleep, and Mendez soon follows suit.
A group of five men splinter off from the larger group and go for help. Eventually, as they approach a U.S. Military Bombing Range, they spot a Border Patrol truck and signal for help. They tell the Migra agent inside the car, Mike F., that there are more men stranded in the desert. Mike reports the situation to the Wellton station, and within ten minutes, a rescue mission is underway. Many are found dead, and some are discovered still alive.
At the Yuma Medical Center, the survivors are interrogated by the police. Their accounts are greatly varied and marked by deep confusion, but all identify Mendez as their smuggler. Rita Vargas, the Mexican consul in Calexico, arrives to aid in the investigation and to advocate for both the living and the dead. The survivors realize that telling their stories might enable them to stay in the United States, so they cooperate with the police.
After the Yuma 14—those who died in the desert—are examined and prepared for burial, they are sent back to Mexico, where they are greeted by a crowd of mourners. Vargas wonders whether these men’s stories might have been different if the astronomical cost of their journey back to Mexico—totaling close to seventy thousand U.S. dollars—had been invested in their impoverished villages in the first place.
Mendez pleads guilty to twenty-five counts of smuggling in order to avoid the possibility of incurring the death penalty. Meanwhile, the survivors demand immunity in exchange for their testimonies, and many are given homes and jobs in the United States. Urrea contemplates how the men’s ordeal changed both “nothing and everything” about border politics. Reform was discussed between Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox, but the events of 9/11 derailed any hopes of a reform process. In the wake of the Wellton 26’s tragedy, violence and chaos have continued to rule the U.S.-Mexico border.
In an afterword written in 2014, ten years after the book’s initial publication, Urrea reflects on his personal experiences writing the book—the relationships he formed with survivors, Border Patrol agents, U.S. and Mexican officials, and even his readers, far and wide. He explains his desire in writing the book was to bear witness to the stories of all involved in the complicated, dangerous world of the border—walkers, smugglers, and Migra alike.