'Devil's Highway' follows fatal journey across the border

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In May 2001, more than two dozen men set out to cross the southern Arizona desert. They were like many who had gone before and many who would follow; they carried little more than individual dreams, a few personal items and what was left of their savings.

Their disastrous sun-baked odyssey, an ordeal that claimed 14 lives, is the subject of Luis Alberto Urrea's "The Devil's Highway: A True Story" (Little, Brown, 239 pp., $24.95), a stunning work of narrative journalism that puts a much-needed face on a notoriously divisive issue.

Even as authorities attempt to hold the line, the U.S. border remains so porous, the big-picture forces so powerful, that the resulting statistics surrounding illegal immigration often numb the mind.

Two thousand people died crossing the border in the five years before these 26 men hit the road, but the details of this tragedy shocked even the most hardened borderland dwellers. Urrea — whose understanding of those eking out lives along the frontera inspired his award-winning "Across the Wire" — masterfully brings these men to life and honors them in death.

Combining strong reportage and fortuitous personal connections, he provides a passionate, detailed account of the circumstances that led them into the "vast trickery of sand" known as the Devil's Highway, where they became hopelessly lost.

His tale is tinged with sad irony — "they'd walked into hell trying to escape the Border Patrol, and now they were praying to get caught" — and pop-culture undertones. But mostly the language is stark and ominous, as if you're there among the doomed pilgrimage, slouching through the brush. Passages as bare and unforgiving as the land itself are interrupted by others as vivid as an oasis, yet clouded with knowing dread.

Urrea places desert and border in historic context, interweaving characters and the rival socioeconomic worlds that prompt the men's journey into a "world of spikes and crags" as incomprehensible to them as it is to anyone outside the American Southwest.

Most came from tropical Veracruz, a place closer in identity to Cuba than Tijuana or even Guadalajara. There is no conceivable end to their poverty, but into their hardscrabble lives comes Don Moi, a bejeweled recruiter for a human-smuggling cartel, selling dreams of riches beyond the border. The going price: Most of a year's income, but a pittance compared to what they can make up there.

Their ambitions are simple: One wants to reroof a house, another to support a recently adopted daughter. Another, to outfit his kids with new clothes. All of this conquers their fears and reluctance to abandon wives and families.

One man signs up with his 14-year-old son. Another wears matching clothes paired by his wife to look good for his first day at work. A contingent from Guerrero state joins in. As the anticipated trek nears, they're shuffled through a blur of buses and grimy hotels, then dumped at road's edge in northern Mexico, already strangers.

As Urrea puts it: "They were aliens before they ever crossed the line."

Despite conflicting testimonies, Urrea crafts a chilling picture of the factors and errors that spelled disaster. "None of them, not even the (guides), knew where they were," Urrea writes. "Nameless mountains loomed over them, nameless stars burned mutely overhead, nameless demons gibbered from the nameless canyons."

As their situation grows ever more dire and the men scrape 40 miles into desolation, the effects are increasingly painful to consider. One by one, they expire at sites describable by little more than global-positioning coordinates, survivors clinging to life even as others spiral into dementia and death.

For Border Patrol officers, it's a familiar story; Urrea nicely conveys their dual burdens of enforcement and lifesaving amid a troublesome milieu of vigilantes, smugglers and thieves. "We try to put numbers on a story that is, at base, a story of the heart," Urrea writes. In the end, attempts to reduce the crisis to mere politics or economics pale in the face of these seemingly modest lives.

Author appearance

Luis Alberto Urrea will read from "The Devil's Highway: A True Story" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Kane Hall, University of Washington campus, free (206-543-9779); and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).