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Urrea delivers a moving novel based on the true story of the Yuma 14, fourteen Mexicans (from a group of 26) that tried to cross the border and enter the US illegally through the Arizona desert and succumbed in the attempt. The author presents the facts efficiently and his conclusion follows: Mexicans trying to cross the border are human beings like everyone else that had the bad fortune of facing tough economic condition; they should be respected.
The author describes the conditions and historic events that lead to the beginning of the illegal immigration into the US and draws a clear parallelism with our times, when there are several tasks in the US that Americans are reluctant to do, thus illegal immigrants are needed for this. When price changes in international markets adversely affected the Mexican economy and overpopulation became a problem, some Mexicans decided to come to the US. They ended up with a comfortable life, so when others found out, a growing interest in crossing the border developed.
Organizations of coyotes were formed to provide supply for the growing demand, and the poor people seeking a better future became just a means to an end. These individuals in their attempts have to fight against the heat of the desert, thirst, exhaustion, "la migra" (Border Patrol) and the coyotes themselves. On top of this, the control at the border has intensified throughout the last years, so the groups seeking a new future have to go through more dangerous paths each time. In the case of the twenty-six Mexicans that are the center of this story, the point of entry was the Devil's Highway, a deadly desert in Arizona that has claimed numerous victims through the years.
Urrea shows his outstanding knowledge of the topic in question and uses this in his descriptions with no holes barred. One of the most shocking passages of the book was the explanation of the different stages of death by heat, which go from Heat Stress to Heat Stroke. The realism and brutality of this account left me absolutely breathless. Overall, the quality of the novel is outstanding and even though it is a tough read at some points, in the end it is extremely satisfying and enlightening.
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on July 9, 2006
"The Devil's Highway," is a pretty good book. Urrea sees no sacred cows - unless discussing the poor individuals who dare to cross over to the U.S. The border landscape is murderous, and the "Coyotes" that lead the illegals across are predators and gangsters. It's all about money. Urrea does his best to give each of those who suffered through the 2001 ordeal (the Yuma 14 (those that died), or Wellton 26 (the entire party), take your pick), faces, lives, hopes. They are people, and not just rotting bodies found in the desert. Still, I get the sense that "The Devil's Highway," is a bit padded. There are also a few inaccuracies (Department of Interior police as a separate body from the BLM? An inaccurate description of a Tarantino movie), which left feeling that Urrea was shooting from the hip. Given the subject matter, he can't help but hit his target (which is extended to both sides of the border), but when I see mistakes (even nitpicky ones), I wonder, whatever the book, what other ones am I missing? Further, Urrea's style will remind you of Hunter Thompson, or even James Ellroy. This is high-risk writing, that hooks a reader, but can also annoy when unnecessary slang is used. At its worst, it seems like the writer is more interested in being hip than telling the story. It's a high wire act. Urrea for the most part stays on that wire, but there were a few times where the slang gets to be annoying.

But even with a slightly padded feel to it, it's the last twenty or so pages of the "Devil's Highway" that deliver the goods. Urrea could easily expand on those twenty pages and write a new book the current state of things Mexican - and American. There were some real revelations for me - such as Mexico losing jobs to China - just like everyone else, which of course contributes to the lure of going North. How illegal immigration contributes to suppressing wages in the U.S., which is why Industry just loves the current situation. The sheer violence (and weirdness) of the border: Mexican law enforcement crossing over in pursuits and shootouts; a very disturbing wave of what seems to be connected murders of women in Juarez (it's been going on for ten years!); and of course the deadly trek north, with Hope and Death sitting in the balance, while Money holds the scales.
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on March 5, 2013
There are many sides to the immigration/border policy debate, and Urrea of presenting them all equally. The book, Luis Alberto Urrea centers around a specific group of walkers, dubbed the Wellton 26, who crossed the border, into the Sonoran desert, Arizona, with a coyote they hired to lead them to safety and a new life in the US. To avoid the Border Patrol, the coyote that was leading, took them on a new route, one which he wasn't very familiar with. This lead to a 6 day hike, covering 40+ miles, in 90-100 degree weather, resulting in 14 deaths.

Urrea uses this one situation, which as picked up by the media, and sensationalized, as a representation of a larger story. In this same year, a total of 417 died attempting unauthorized border crossings, and those are only the ones who were found. The walkers from Mexico are in a desperate search for a better life for them and their families, while the border patrol is trying to fulfill the law, attempting the capture the illegals as they enter the country, though also concerned for their safety.


The issue of immigration enforcement, and border policy is very complicated. Reading this gave me a great picture of what is going on there, and how many sides to the story there are. There are many positive changes taking place, but the US has a long way to go to find the best solution. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about border policy and the stories behind the walkers attempting to cross to a better life.
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on February 21, 2006
Pulitzer Prize finalist, Luis Alberto Urrea, has written about the struggle people desperate enough to risk their lives crossing the Mexican/American border (Arizona) in search of a better life. The story itself is as old as the hills but this time, he paints a picture of the area so vividly, that if you've been anywhere in this region, you'll appreciate his descriptions even more. The people who abound, from many walks of life (and not only Mexicans), faced the oppressive heat and lack of water, not knowing where they'd land up, were brave and courageous. Urrea unfolds the account of the twenty-six men who ventured into the unknown and in search of a better life, and the "human hunt" that followed them. Their fears and dreams, the desert's own laws, and the stretch known as The Devil's Highway is all explained. Doggedly they pursue freedom but the price is extremely high, as the desert has obstacles few humans can survive. Urrea does a great job describing the officials whose job it is to patrol this particular area along the Arizona/Mexican border, as well as the brokers who help arrange these trips to freedom - usually at a high cost.
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on May 25, 2004
Amazing book! I couldn't put it down and read it from cover to cover in one day. Urrea has a gift for language and he applies it here. This is the story of 26 men from Veracruz. Urrea could have recounted the story of how 14 of them died in the desert and left it at that. This would still be a book worth reading... but he went way beyond those confines. He took the story of those 26 men from Veracruz and put it in historical, cultural and geographical context. He opened a window onto other worlds and onto our own. He portrays the immigrants, the border patrol and even the coyote, without judgment. He allows the reader to come to her/his own conclusion. Powerful, poetic and unforgettable. I finished it and got back on line to order everything else he has published.
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on December 10, 2011
This is as good as it gets if you want a short but comprehensive examination of the issues surrounding our porous border with Mexico. All viewpoints are represented, and with surprisingly little bias on the part of the author. As a Mexican American, Urrea admits to an initial bias against the Border Patrol, or "Pinche Migra." His investigation changed his mind, and he presents them in a favorable light.

Urrea uses one well-publicized 2001 tragedy to illustrate the complexities and absurdities of illegal border crossings and their consequences. He follows a group of 26 Mexican men from hopeful start to brutal finish as they made their way through the process of illegal entry into the U.S. He begins with each man as an individual -- deciding to come to America, collecting the money to pay the smugglers (Coyotes), and traveling to the meeting place.
From then on we witness their collective ordeal in the desert corridor known as The Devil's Highway. The personal touch is effective here, so we see each man with a name, a family, a history, and a specific dream or purpose for coming to America.

Fourteen of the men died, and the other twelve came close to death, surviving only due to the quick rescue from the Border Patrol once they were discovered. Sadly, their story is not unique. It's only one well-documented example of the hundreds of Mexican people who die in that desert every year after having been lied to and then abandoned by the Coyotes. Some of them who cannot pay a lot of money are even transported in car trunks or tied to engine blocks, and then die from the heat.

Urrea's description of the physiological breakdown of the human body in that harsh desert with no water is especially distressing. The journey of the men through the six stages of "heat death" will make you understand why the men who work for the Border Patrol have paid out of their own pockets to erect $6,000 lifesaving towers. Walkers in trouble can press a red button and the Border Patrol will arrive within one hour to rescue them. And so the bad guys, the "Pinche Migra" so greatly feared by illegal entrants, sometimes turn out to be the saviors.

This is not a book about presenting solutions, but about making people aware of the difficulties extending so far beyond immigration policy. In the Aftermath section, Urrea addresses the political, financial, and humanitarian aspects of the problem, with all sides fairly represented. He especially highlights the absurdity of the money spent on rescue efforts, medical care, and body recovery -- money that could be much better spent to improve life in Mexican villages.

To his credit, the author doesn't claim to have answers, but he provides a compelling understanding of the problem, which is a good place to start.
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on December 6, 2012
This is a book I would not have chosen to read and in fact the first few pages confirmed my fear it would be a depressing book about a depressing subject. I was wrong. The book had been chosen by my book group so I had to persist. Soon the book became surprisingly compelling even though the gruesome end was never in doubt. The author brilliantly tells the true story of a group of men who died (or nearly died) in the Arizona desert in May 2001.
Luis Alberto Urrea does so by revealing meaningful details about all the people in this tragic event. He displays the diverse backgrounds of the Mexicans crossing the border--giving a visceral understanding or where they were actually and metaphorically coming from. The book might have stopped there with an emotional story of their pain and suffering and their appalling ignorance of the desert (many of the men had come from the lush wet tropics and had no idea of the importance of simple things like wearing a hat or not wearing black pants). But, to his credit, the author goes beyond that and presents background on all the players: the border patrol, the local residents who are plagued by problems resulting from people walking across the border, and the others involved in this dangerous and expensive activity. In sometimes poetic phrases we learn about the desert, the heat, stages of death by heat and thirst. The result is a realization of the true tragic quality of the illegal immigration problem. Everyone involved in this story labored under misconceptions or gross ignorance that led to a terrible outcome. Worse, there seems no clear path toward stopping or even tamping down the problem. All you can say after reading the book is you have a much better grasp of the issues facing the parties near the border. That may not be enough, but it is something worthwhile.
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on April 26, 2004
Luis Urrea only writes classics.As another writer who writes about the borderlands,I assure you ,he is the best purveyor of the human condition on the planet.You cannot read this,or any of his books, without changing your view of the world;changing your view of "right" and "wrong" and without changing the contents of your own heart.
In Luis Urrea's world there are few villains,few stereotypes and few "blame-games".But there is a mountain of reality that every person in North America needs to consider----what worlds,political and economic, have we created that push humans into impossible journeys,folly,even death,just to earn enough to eat and send their kids to school? What borders have we imposed--both geopolitical and cultural, that separate human beings so completely as to compell the events of this book?And,for God's sake, what does any of us gain from it? The Devil's highway is about the desperate saga of a group of poor Mexican immigrants....and it is about all the rest of us who perceive ourselves as "not part of the problem". The US/Mexico border has become a stake through the heart of humanity.No one intended it that way,but it pierces the hearts of millions just the same.This is a book that every high school and college kid in America should be assigned.Period.
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on March 29, 2004
"Mr. President, tear down this wall."
Some day, perhaps, an American president will have the courage -- or a Mexican president will have the honesty -- to go to the wall between Mexico and United States and demand its removal in the name of freedom.
Until then, the Sonoran Desert will continue to be the site for hundreds of unbelievably agonizing deaths every year. Within the last 10 years, more people have died here than those who tried to cross the Berlin Wall. Until then, as Urrea makes abundantly clear, Mexicans will continue to create networks that in a few years will be the great criminal syndicates of the United States and Mexico.
It's happened before. Prohibition was a great "holier than thou" movement, and it generated many vicious criminals. It took the courage of President Franklin Roosevelt to end its rampant hypocrisy. Some day, if Americans ever elect another president with the courage of Roosevelt, a border solution will be found.
It's agonizing to be slowly baked to death in the sun. Thousands of desperate people risk it every year; this book tell of 14 who didn't make it in May 2001. The reporting is excellent, the writing is superb. Don't read it unless you have a strong stomach; the deaths of "Los illegales" and the pure greed of Mexicans who recruit and deliver then to the US is a gruesome story. (Keep in mind, this is also a major route for deadly drugs.)
It took a man from Chicago to write this book. Few in Arizona, where people hire illegals with the casual unconcern of buying a drive-through taco, care about the human cost. Arizona cities actually run drive-by labour centers to facilitate the hiring of illegals by homeowners and business people. The media generally ignores desert deaths unless it is groups of a dozen or more; "big" news in Arizona is the opening of a new shopping center or the latest exploits of a Britney Spears.
But then, who ever wrote a book exposing rum runners?
John Steinbeck immortalized Okies in 'The Grapes of Wrath," but they had a cakewalk compared to what Mexicans now risk to get low wage US jobs. Urrea has done a superb job citing facts about one of the world's deadliest border crossings; read this book, and you'll cry in sorrow and rage at what people endure to reach the US.
I've hiked the area where these men died; three hours without water, even in the cool (only 85 degrees F) winter, is enough to produce the first signs of dehydration. It's a tough, unforgiving, brutal land. Mistakes are seldom forgiven. Few, if any, Arizona writers know the desert well enough to describe it as accurately as Urrea. For most Arizonans, illegal aliens -- like federal spending -- makes their state cheap, easy and lazy.
It took a man from "the city of big shoulders" to write this book. As you read it, keep in mind that a child or grandchild of any one of these migrants could well become another Urrea (provided they get out of Arizona). It's what America is all about, and it is why people will literally "walk through Hell" for days on end, even when they know the only job they'll ever get is scrubbing toilets.
Read it, and you'll scream in anger, rage, sorrow and frustration. Of course, if you're from Arizona, where chain gangs are still policy and jail inmates are housed in surplus army tents during summers which easily reach 115 degrees, your only reaction will be, "So what? That's the penalty for breaking the law."
Maybe it's time to reconsider the Gadsden Purchase.
Read it. This book will shake anyone's conscience.
Read it. Learn what courage and greed mean in today's world.
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on October 4, 2014
While I might not have picked up this book if I didn't have to teach it, I am glad I read it. Urrea paints the heartbreaking tale of the many men and women who cross the border from Mexico to the US in search of something more. Though he focuses on 26 specific walkers, the story is so much broader and deeper than those 26 men. Told in nonfiction narrative style that is, at times, non linear, this story captivates from the first sentence to the last image.
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