I read everything I can about the Mexico-America border. I'm slightly obsessed with it- partially due to the first trip I spent in Mexico, where we studied border issues in depth. It's not really fair to speak of Mexico without the context of the United States and/or the border, and honestly, it's not really fair to talk about the United States without talking about Mexico. A whole lot of us (me included) live in what used to be Mexico (now referred to by people in the Chicano Movement as "Aztlan"), which was surrendered/taken/stolen by the US after the Spanish/American war in 1848. (See this dramatic map). It's a whole lot of white/colonial/American privilege that most people in el norte don't even know about this. And much more recently, a whole lot of incredibly destructive policies have created a push/pull situation where Mexican are both enticed to the United States and forced to look elsewhere for their income. This isn't a history lesson, so I'm not going to discuss all of these factors, or the US policy's back and forth ambivalence- sure, we'll take 'um, under these conditions, to "no way, Jose" (get it?), to "ok, we'll look the other way, someone's gotta do our dirty work," to half-hearted stimulus packages on the border. That's another story (and probably another book review).
One part of the story is that the Powers that Be in the United States have made it virtually impossible to cross the border in any of the major reasonable places to cross the border: San Deigo, Nogales, El Paso. This, in the name of the years of the "No way, Jose," policy. The ongoing militarization of the border (expanded exponentially since 9/11 with the merging of the US/Mexico border into the (creepy) Homeland Security department means that it gets harder and harder for immigrants to come into the US without (very difficult to come by) paperwork. But this hasn't stopped them from coming- the numbers of people crossing the border continues to increase, as the dangers of crossing increases. As Urrea writes, the fact that the dangers increase means that the likelihood of returning to Mexico decreases. Who wants to risk their lives multiple times?
By the time you get to the end of Urrea's book about the "Tucson 14," as they're sometimes called, you'd wonder who would want to risk their lives to come to El Norte at all. On the other hand, the genius of "The Devil's Highway" is that you understand totally. The close-to-30 men who came through the desert (all of home who suffered, 14 (at least) who died), came because they wanted a better life, which the United States, via some shady men, promised them. Even the shady coyotes who led the men to their deaths were human- they come across as men who also wanted better lives, and only got into being coyotes as a business venture, not as prey animals picking the carcasses of the weak, innocent Mexican campesinos. Surprisingly, even the Border Patrol agents come across as human- they spring into action to rescue the dying men, and although have an inter-agency spat about what to call the incident, even come up with fixes to help avoid this in the future.
Bottom line, this is a gripping book. People suffer and die. "Aliens" suffer and die. "Illegals" suffer and die. I can't imaginen reading this book and still believing crossers are "aliens." Or that they really are a threat to the "American way of life." These are not terrorists- in fact, Border Patrol agents repeatedly dismiss the idea that they are staving off any future terrorist attack. Urrea is a convincing documenter of the tragedy that is the relationship between Mexico and the United States, almost without documenting it all. Although this is almost an action book, it's a stark commentary on what we've become, on what the United States is doing to Mexico, and to MExicans. Read it and weep.