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Know the West

Remembering those forgotten in the desert

  Every year, hundreds of Mexican immigrants die in the Arizona desert. This year will be no different. Their deaths generally receive little more then a mention in some local papers. But author and poet Luis Alberto Urrea is trying to change that.

In The Devil’s Highway, Urrea chronicles the ill-fated journey of a group of poor immigrants — mostly farmers and factory-workers — who set out in May 2001 on what they thought was a two-day walk to better wages north of the border. Only 12 of the 26 men who entered the desert survived the trip; the other 14 died in the 110-degree Sonoran furnace.

The trip was doomed from the start, writes Urrea. The experienced guide, or "coyote," who best knew the smuggling route skipped out, leaving 19-year-old Jesus Lopez Ramos, or "Mendez", as he was known to the group, to lead the way. Wrong turns and poor decisions sealed the migrants’ fate.

"For a long time, the Border Patrol had worried that something bad was coming," he writes. "Something to match or outstrip the terrible day in 1980, when a group of Salvadorans was abandoned in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and thirteen of them died." Upon discovering the survivors, the border agents "knew the apocalypse had finally come."

The Devil’s Highwayis not a light read: It’s a rough ride that provides an honest and sometimes gory account of the struggles the group endured. A tale of hope, horror and survival, the book gives readers new insight into the world of the smugglers, migrants and the Border Patrol itself.

The Devil’s Highway
by Luis Alberto Urrea
239 pages, hardcover, $24.95.
Little, Brown and Company, 2004