The devil's highway : a true story

by Luis Alberto Urrea

Paper Book, 2005




New York : Back Bay Books, 2005.


Describes the attempt of twenty-six men to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, a region known as the Devil's Highway, detailing their harrowing ordeal and battle for survival against impossible odds. Only 12 men came back out. 2 maps.

Media reviews

Working with material from numerous interviews with many of the survivors of the ill-fated expedition, their families and the Border Patrol officers, and dramatizing -- which is to say, conjuring and imagining -- the links between the facts he has and the facts he doesn't have, Urrea, a poet, goes further than most previous attempts by journalists of every level of ability who have tackled this subject before.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This book was published seven years ago and should be required reading today. It describes how undocumented workers get to the farms, motels, fast food restaurants and factories of the United States and why they undertake that perilous journey through the story of a typical group of men who attempted to cross the Arizona desert on foot. It's brilliantly and humanely written, showing everyone from the Border Patrol to the coyotes who guide the group so disastrously wrong in a critical, but compassionate way.

As the political rhetoric heats up here and we have successfully renamed the people who pick our oranges and cook our Big Macs illegal aliens, as though they were non-human and essentially evil, this book is more important than ever. While Urrea does have a bias toward compassion and understanding, he doesn't flinch from addressing the costs to everyone of the issue of workers crossing illegally to work in the north. He also illuminates both the reasons people would be driven to undertake an expensive and potentially deadly journey and the ways American immigration policy has created unforeseen consequences.

If every article or book written on this topic were as well-researched and free of hyperbole, I think the national debate on immigration would be both more reasonable and more productive.
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
First Line: Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn't know their own names, couldn't remember where they'd come from, had forgotten how long they'd been lost.

So many illegal immigrants die in the desert Southwest of the U.S. that only notorious catastrophes make headlines. Urrea reconstructs one such incident in the Sonoran Desert, the ordeal of sun and thirst of two dozen men in May 2001, half of whom suffered excruciating deaths. (The press labeled them the Yuma 14 although there were more than fourteen men and Yuma had nothing to do with it.) Tracing their lives and routes to the border, Urrea's surreal style makes the desert landscape shimmer and distort as the pages turn. The way that Urrea blends the terse facts of the case into his narrative produces a powerful, almost diabolical impression of the disaster and the exploitative conditions at the border. Urrea does a masterful job of humanizing this whole situation--which is exactly what is needed.

This book is an eye-opener and has encouraged me to research this topic more. This is long overdue, and I'll be trying to make up for lost time.
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LibraryThing member acargile
A non-fiction novel, The Devil’s Highway tells about 26 immigrants getting lost as they cross the desert into Arizona with only 12 surviving.

I like listening to podcasts, and recently RadioLab had a three-part series on immigration. They began reading from a book and talking about how a man got interested in the people who die in the Arizona desert crossing the border. He wanted to help people learn what happened to their family members. The series also dealt with El Paso and why crossing the border changed, causing immigrants to choose the desert when it’s a place that is so inhospitable that humans cannot live there long. This book is the book they began their series with, quoting from it. Coincidentally, Audiobook Sync released it as one of their novels this summer. It was meant to be--I absolutely had to listen to it. I would recommend reading it because there’s a lot to remember and process. I would have done better reading it--I would forget something, and because it’s hard to backtrack on audio, I wouldn’t, so I know I missed some connections and some content.

The author explains the history of the area, discusses the biological facts of the body in a desert, and tells the story from both points of view--the border agents and the immigrants. Only after the deaths could the story be pieced together--Urrea finds the missteps that caused the deaths of these men. It’s a fascinating tale of the coyotes who take advantage of the desperate who seek a better life, of the border agents who work day and night in remote locations risking their own lives to help and detain those who cross, and of the people who find their lives shortened by a planned, short outing in the desert. It’s brutal but a story to know about. No matter your opinion on immigration, this explains some of the history and the dangers involved.
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LibraryThing member benuathanasia
I wish they'd picked a different reader for the audiobook. The "story" was wonderful and heartbreaking and infuriating and fascinating, but the narrator was SOOOO BAD. Stilted. Look Alberto, I get you wrote it and did all the research, but you CANNOT read aloud. Please don't try! It was like really bad spoken word poetry.
LibraryThing member RealLifeReading
Living in California makes me miss the rain. A good thunderstorm, a tropical shower, that smell, that heaviness in the air that lets you know the rain is coming. It’s drizzling here in Fremont today, and is expected to rain for the next couple of days, but it’s a different sort of rain. It’s the kind that creeps up on you, that you can barely hear, that isn’t announced via a flash and boom.

California is dry. But not as dry as the Devil’s Highway (and I mean the actual ‘highway’ here, not the book above). I mean, look at the way Urrea opens his book:

“Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn’t know their own names, couldn’t remember where they’d come from, had forgotten how long they’d been lost. One of them wandered back up a peak. One of them was barefoot. They were burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking, what paltry drool still available to them spuming from their mouths in a salty foam as they walked. Their eyes were cloudy with dust, almost too dry to blink up a tear. Their hair was hard and stiffened by old sweat, standing in crowns from their scalps, old sweat because their bodies were no longer sweating. They were drunk from having their brains baked in the pan, they were seeing God and the devils, and they were dizzy from drinking their own urine, the poisons clogging their systems.”

Doesn’t that just make you want to reach for your glass of water and take a huge chug?

These five men were part of an original group of 26 who were trying to cross from Mexico into the United States, into Arizona, for the promise of a better life, led by a rather inept guide who eventually leads them to this disastrous ending. This crossing kills many illegal immigrants every year, but one or two never make the headlines, unlike these 26 – of which 14 died excruciating deaths. Urrea traces these men back to their small towns, attempting to tell their stories from what little is known of their backgrounds – the inventory of their few possessions and the clothes they wore on this trek was particularly sad to read.

Urrea doesn’t simply drag the reader along with him on his hot and dusty journey. Instead he involves us, he brings us into this tale he is attempting to weave for us. For instance, when discussing the leader of the Spanish expedition looking for gold in 1541, he has the reader imagine how he died.

“No record states how Melchior entered the pen, but it doesn’t seem likely he stopped to open a gate. Not Melchior. He jumped over the fence, and in jumping, somehow he bobbled his lance throw and missed the dog entirely. You can see the dog tipping and sidestepping and making tracks for the horizon, casting wounded looks over his shoulder. And here is where Melchior Diaz died.”

So you can imagine what it must be like when he describes and explains the different stages of death by heat. A very graphic, difficult read but like a highway accident, something you just can’t tear your eyes away from.

Just make sure you’ve got plenty to drink while reading The Devil’s Highway.

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LibraryThing member aliciamay
This was a tragic look at the struggles faced by immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. In May 2001 a group of at least 26 Mexicans attempted to enter Arizona through the desert on foot. A series of missteps cost at least 14 of the walkers their lives. The book adds a personal story to the plight of immigrants and was well researched, especially considering that so much is still unknown and accounts of those involved are unreliable due to the effects of hyperthermia. Speaking of, the description of the stages of hyperthermia actually made me get up and drink a glass of water. The author did a very good job at looking at this incident through various lenses and emphasizing that immigration is not a black and white issue. The book poses no solutions, but raises some good questions…How could one coyote (a-hole that he was) be solely responsible for the deaths? This incident was tragic because of the number of deaths, but why are the victims treated as heroes and martyrs after the fact? Would all the money that is spent on border protection and treatment of border victims be better spent on a sound immigration program or in the Mexican economy?… (more)
LibraryThing member carterchristian1
This is such a timely book with immigration reform seemingly beyond the administration and congress this summer of 2010. The book speaks to the terrible plight of men and women who risk it all in the end to send money home to help their families. It is inhumane for the US to knowingly allow people to risk the terrible death of dying in the desert. Well done.… (more)
LibraryThing member HHS-Students
Reviewed by: Frank (Class of 2013)

Imagine walking in more than 100 degree weather and you have nothing to drink, nothing to eat, and you have no shade to hide behind. That’s life for people crossing the border from Mexico to the United States; there is an area that is called the Devil's highway. This area got its name because it has claimed many lives, the first white person died on January 18, 1541 and had to go through unbearable feats. He had to walk for many miles without food or water.

The author Luis Alberto Urrea informs many people of how dangerous any area could be. He tells us how some people have survived this unbearable place that easily kills people. If you were to survive you would be among some of the few that were lucky to tell about their stories of the Devils Highway.

In this story there is a picture and a diagram for a five day forecast, basically because it tells us how some of the people survived and how some of them died. The book is very informative and the group survives with very few things. They had very little water and at many times they thought they were going to die. They wanted to give up many times but they knew that they had to keep going until they were picked up and brought to safety.

My overall opinion of this book is that it doesn’t really grab my attention and it doesn’t make me want to read on and keep going like other books have.
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LibraryThing member xollo
This is one of my all-time favorite books, and one I recommend more often than all others, especially to men. It’s the gruesome true story of 28 men emigrating from Mexico into the U.S. across the desert on a particular route known as The Devil’s Highway. Their coyote, or guide, is inexperienced, gets them lost, and leaves them to die in the desert. You will never think about heat, thirst or the desert the same way again. Urrea is a poet and novelist aside from being an award-winning non-fiction author, and his amazing unraveling of this ill-fated border crossing is nothing short of mesmerizing…and oddly beautiful. He humanizes the immigrant workers we so frequently disregard. Images from this book still haunt me. Have a big glass of cool water with you when you read this one… (more)
LibraryThing member kacollins26
Extreamly well written non-fic book about the difficulties of the US-Mexico border. To do so Urrea retells the story of 26 mexicans as they try to cross the border, only 12 of them make it out alive. Amazing and I would recommend it to anyone.
LibraryThing member HHS-Students
Reviewed by Erika (Class of 2014)

Desperation of the illegals could be counted by pesos – not enough could be earned to buy necessary clothes, seek shelter or even supply the daily needed food. Education was also nowhere to be found for the children of Mexico. The Devils Highway, written by Luis Alberto Urrea, takes place in small towns and mountains near to the Arizonian Boarder and Northern Mexico. Within the text there are numerous characters mentioned, a critical character being Reymundo Barreda, a hard-working man that decides to go north so he can expand and reroof his house as a gift to his wife. Then there’s Luis Cercas who leads a human trafficking family in Arizona, while there are also many other characters. The beginning of The Devils Highway talks about the tough mentality of the Border Patrol without disregarding their hardships and justifications. Out of the 26 illegal walkers, only 12 ends up surviving, the coyotes end up killing 14 throughout the journey through the deserts. The Devils Highway describes the dangerous journey taken on by a travelling group of 26 Mexicans that will take the risk for a number of compelling reasons. Each man carried along with him a lucky spur belt buckle, a note from a waiting chica, and one black sock. The greater part of this book is follows these men on their harsh journey through the desert, and follows how they lose money, water, food, hope, courage, and even for some, life. Personally I thought the book included a lot of details and flashback-like situations that get difficult to interpret sometimes and may be misleading to when each event is occurring in the story. But on the plus side the author spells out problems specifically mentioned throughout the book. Luis Alberto Urrera is a journalist who offered a book to illuminate his human side of rough journeys in the American life. Urrera returned to his neighborhood in Tijuana to complete mission work after he graduated from college, fulfilling the curiosity about the Mexican part of his heritage. Overall the book had a growing and repeating theme of betrayal. The fourteen walkers who suffered in the desert were victims of betrayal- by their guides, along with the country. The men just wanting to escape their poor lives in Mexico risked their lives travelling across the dry abandoned deserts in search of new life and new jobs or even education, not evening knowing how rough the journey would be, or if they would even make it through alive.… (more)
LibraryThing member galpalval
An in-depth look at the fourteen Mexicans who died trying to make their way into the US.
LibraryThing member bherner
Seriously depressing, but compelling reading about illegal immigrants dieing in the desert trying to get into the U.S. Every chest-thumping anti-immigrant yahoo should be forced to read this book.
LibraryThing member HHS-Students
Reviewed by Brian (Class of 2014)

Out of energy, out of water. Stuck in the desert for days, literally baking in their own skin. And just when they need them the most, the guides rob them and leave. The Devil’s Highway is a very interesting book about the hardships of crossing the border. Twenty six Mexicans give all of their money away for one chance to cross the border. Dreams of reaching the U.S. fill their heads. They all achieve their dreams, but some aren’t alive when it happens.
The people in the group want one thing, to leave Mexico for a chance to make some real money, maybe a chance at a better life. They all end up in a group together with a young man as their leader. This leader ends up as just a wannabe gangster named Mendez, a young man who was in search of some money and ends up in the human smuggling business. Nobody likes him. How can a kid lead them through the desert?
They follow his orders anyway into the desert and end up in the middle of nowhere, lost and out of water. The closest civilization is miles away. Then they are robbed and left to die by their guides, Mendez and some accomplices. The men start dying off, leaving a trail of bodies as they try to escape the deserts wish of death. In the end only 12 remain alive.
This chilling account is even worse when you find out it’s based on a true story. But overall it’s a great book that I highly recommend. Written by Luis Alberto Urrea, it’s almost expected that this book would be superb from the beginning. This author has won countless awards for his astounding work, and they are much deserved.
This book is a great read and I highly recommend it. It takes you in and makes you feel as if you’re a part of the action, and involved in every life or death decision. It sends chills up your spine when you’re being asked to decide whether to keep walking, or turn around and go back when you have been walking for days. You have to read the book to understand, and you definitely should read it. You won’t regret it.
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LibraryThing member mjspear
Compelling, well-documented telling of the Yuma 14: illegal immigrants who died in the AZ desert trying to cross into the United States. There are no heroes (maybe the US Border Patrol who 'discover' the men) and few villains (maybe the head of the illegal operation) An indictment of the US/Mexican border policy that reads like a who-done-it, this is nonfiction writing at its best.… (more)
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
This is an intense, disturbing, horrifying, and yes, thought provoking true story of migration to the United States from Mexico. A must read if you ask yourself why this whole immigration issue is so complicated.
LibraryThing member HHS-Students
Reviewed by: Matthew (Class of 2013)

In my opinion, books based on true stories are a little bland. Nothing in real life is truly exciting (often times a little boring). So when I read "The Devil’s Highway", a book written by Luis Alberto Urrea that’s based on a true story, I was a little cautious about the set-up. I was a little thrown off by how engaging the first few sentences were, and after that, the book became a masterpiece. The hook was instantaneous. Not only does it portray a disturbingly vivid picture in your head, but it ties in with the book’s setting. I actually felt like I was in the book, living the author’s words.

Another factor that made this book so good is how it actually ties into real life events. Like I stated earlier, this book was based off a true event that happened in May 2001, and the history and research that went into this book is fabulous. I also believe that the author is just as important to the book. Luis Alberto Urrea is just the kind of mind you’d expect behind such a compelling novel, not only winning multiple awards for this book, but also having some experience with the real life events, being born in Tijuana, Mexico.

The plot of the book is simple: 26 men, all who are tired of their dead end relations in the country of Mexico, decide to escape and cross the border of Mexico, a feat that, while dangerous, can yield the American Dream. While traveling across a patch of desert known as the Devil’s Highway, notorious for killing men for hundreds of years, the immigrants soon find themselves in a dangerous situation that grows more and more desperate as they travel on. Battling severe heat, dehydration, and unsure directions is the least of their worries, as there “tour guide” is actually the newest member of one of many underground immigrant smuggling gangs, who’s more worried about Border Patrol than finding a way through to the United States. Named Jesus, the young man wishes to prove himself by undertaking this huge task. However not even two weeks into the journey, Jesus fails, and kills 14 people in the process, leaving only 12 alive.

My overall opinion is that this book is a truly marvelous work of writing. From vivid descriptions of dehydration, to the way some of the characters express their concerns, even to the way the author describes the burning wastelands of the Devil’s Highway, this novel is a reason why Lois Alberto Urrea deserves to carry the honor of a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
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LibraryThing member HHS-Students
Reviewed by Nohemi (Class of 2014)

“We’re lost. No, we’re not. Mendez says we’re not lost.” Imagine being lost in the middle of the desert, with no water or food, walking in over 100 degree weather, your insides cooking themselves, no shade whatsoever, just imagine knowing that you were going to die soon.
The Devil’s Highway, a true story written by Luis Alberto Urrea, gives a vivid image of how horrible and difficult it was for the 26 Mexicans who tried to cross the desert to the United States for a better life for themselves and their loved ones. The author describes how life in Mexico is very hard and different. The author wrote the book with so much detail, I actually felt that I was one of the poor Mexicans crossing through the desert, feeling the way they felt. This true story happened in May 2001, when 26 Mexicans ready for something new and better, wanted to live the American Dream. But only 12 out of 26 survived. Jesus Lopez Ramos known as Mendez, the leader of the group, tells them that it will only take two days to go through part of the desert known as The Devil's Highway; it’s called this because of how many lives it has taken, how it plays with you, and tortures you. “… A vast graveyard of unknown dead… the scattered bones of human beings slowly turning to dust… the dead were left where they were to be sepulchered by the fearful sand storms that sweep at times over the desolate waste” (Urrea 12). As they walk they were acting pretty confident, and saying that it wasn’t so bad, but later on, the group was in a dangerous and bad situation. One by one, they each slowly start to die. The immigrants have no choice but to keep on walking, hoping that they will make it to the United States or at least try to catch the Migras attention, to be saved. They didn’t care if they got deported back to Mexico, all of them just wanted to get out of The Devil’s Highway.
I really enjoyed reading this book because of how detailed the author explained everything. From the first page of the book, I was hooked. It really grabbed my attention which surprised me because this book didn’t really seem very interesting. I would rate this book 4 stars out of 5; I definitely recommend this book for others to read.
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LibraryThing member Hoker
The Devil’s Highway is an oddly compelling read as it takes you through the life and death of illegal immigration. It presents a view point you may not have considered before if you are a Sirius Patriot Radio fan. I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but it is a fine read, if you keep an open mind.
LibraryThing member karen_o
This is recommended to those who are interested in even a general way about the issues surrounding the US-Mexico border. For people living in the area who feel that the subject matter may be a little too up-close-and-personal, I understand that, but the author did a very good job of getting through the bad parts very quickly so that you had a sense of it but weren't overhwelmed by it. Which didn't stop me from skimming some of that anyway.

The book had quite a bit more to offer than just that with brief but cogent discussions of some of the larger issues causing the border problem in the first place and both the harm and good being done by the governments on both sides.
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LibraryThing member HHS-Students
Reviewed by Kyle (Class of 2014)

“Heat stroke. Your blood [level] is as low as it can get. Dehydration has reduced all your inner streams to sluggish mudholes. Your heart pumps harder and harder to get fluid and oxygen to your organs… your sweat runs out… you are having a core meltdown… Your skin gets terribly sensitive. It hurts, it burns… your muscles feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot... The system closes down in a series. Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart. They jam shut. Stop. Your brain sparks. Out. You’re gone.” – Excerpt from The Devil’s Highway. It is here that Luis Alberto Urrea’s expert use of description really shines, and keeps the reader intensely interested. He vividly explains the process of hyperthermia, the result of being exposed to too much heat. The main characters experience this as they make an impossible journey across the deserts of Arizona, after illegally crossing into the United States from Mexico. However, the rest of the book struggles to keep up with this pace. The reader is quite simply provided with too much detail. The Devil’s Highway is a true story, documenting the issue of illegal immigration into the U.S. from the view of both Border Patrol agents and a party of thirty or so “walkers,” desperate Mexicans attempting to cross the border undetected. Literally, the first third of the book is background information, simply filler. It feels as though this should have been a short publication, because the actual story of their trek is only about one third of the 220 pages. I felt overwhelmed with unnecessary information from the beginning. Names of unimportant people, dates, locations, and backstories fill the pages, and throw the reader’s attention around. I often found myself forgetting what it was that I was actually reading about. This is not because Luis transitions from topic to topic poorly, but because there is just such a mass of information thrown at you. It also does not help that the book seems to be chronologically confusing. Instead of beginning at the start of the walkers’ journey, the first page tells the reader how their journey ended. Then, Luis goes on to describe the setting, and practically its entire known history. So, at this point, I was already juggling several sizeable pieces of information. Next, after a pointless piece about Tucson, we are brought back to right before the end of the walk. Here, Luis describes the Border Patrol, for fifteen pages. Then it’s back to the walkers, after the end of the journey. Shortly after that, he talks about how the bodies of the deceased were handled. Then, a little inside scoop about most walkers. Next, the condition of another setting, Veracruz. Then, how aliens made deals with Coyotes (the men who guided walkers across the wasteland) about making a journey. And finally, after another almost 40 pages, Luis resumes his telling of the actually story, from the very beginning. And this isn’t even halfway through the book. The whole book continues on in this stumble-around fashion, all the way to the very end. In a nutshell, this is not a boring or slow book, it is just full of too much information. If you can keep up with the random tidbits, then you might actually enjoy this documentation, about illegal immigration into the United States.… (more)
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
First published in 2004, the stories of undocumented immigrants trying to enter the US illegally has not changed as much as I had hoped. This book tells the story of the a large group of men (in this particular crossing, it was only men) trying to cross with the help of an inept coyote. About half of them died; all of them suffered. These were men who were trying not to be drug lords or rapists or murderers. These were men who were trying to make a better life for their families.

In 2004 immigration was a problem but it was not as front-and-center, not as feared as today. The version I read had an afterword written 10 years after publication. The writing in the book was not stellar. It occasionally tended towards purple prose. But it was effective. I think the writing in the afterword was more mature. Still, this is a book well worth reading. We as a country cannot continue this ineffective and cruel practice of preventing entry into the US by good people who just want a better life. This book displays the humanity and the cruelty on both sides of the (sometimes literal) fence.

Some of the quotes I noted:
“Writing the book made me angry. I am much more pleasant when writing haiku.”

“Everybody loves Jesus Christ. They just don't know what to do with Jesus Garcia.”

“Once a Tea Party maven demanded to see my papers or they wouldn't pay me for my lecture.”

And this one in the acknowledgments (Yes, I do read those, too):
“Mike's harem of newswomen was also a delight.”

Excuse me?? Harem?? Apparently, all of us have our missteps. Still, a very good read for anyone who cares about immigration and immigrants.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
A simple, bitter, sarcastic tone throughout, but I simply could not put it down. Raw, shocking and torturous.
LibraryThing member christina.h
This was such an intense and oftentimes painful read. I’m so glad to have read it, to have learned some dire truths about this issue that is rife with shades of gray, and that I believe everyone should be further educated upon. At a certain point, it’s not about what you believe regarding immigration, but that you be educated before forming your thoughts on the matter at all. We owe that to ourselves and each other, and Urrea’s book is a fantastic place to start.… (more)
LibraryThing member Seven.Stories.Press
I've taken a number of writing classes with Luis, and he's a kick-ass person who takes your breath away... and his writing isn't much different. This book kept me on the edge of my seat... I don't think I slept for three days until I finished this one. And it's not even pro-immigrant or pro-border guard, but a nice balanced representation of the reality of people's lives.… (more)


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