Illustration by Curt Crawshaw

Who would have guessed that the new pimp daddy of desert writers would be a blond half-Mexican poet from Tijuana who once worked as an extra in a Chuck Norris movie? Anybody who’s been paying attention.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s new book, The Devil’s Highway, is a story that was waiting to be written. This nonfiction account of Mexican migrants dying in the Southwestern desert, as the unintended consequence of a U.S. Border Patrol crackdown, deals with a phenomenon that falls below the radar of most Americans. Yet it’s as dramatic as a Tolstoy novel, full of hope and injustice, with overtones that are positively biblical. Urrea, a poet, essayist and fiction writer, draws from all of these genres in telling the story of a border crossing gone very, very wrong.

In May 2001, a group of ordinary men from the state of Veracruz paid nearly $2,000 each to a smuggling ring to guide them across the U.S.-Mexico border. The trip went wrong from the start. The experienced guides didn’t show up, leaving the migrants in the dubious care of a 19-year-old rockero who sported a peroxided punked-out forelock that dangled down to the end of his nose. Then a heat wave slammed temperatures into the triple digits. And like virtually all the people who die crossing this borderland — 200 last year — the men were unprepared for the hallucinatory rigors of crossing the hottest, flattest, harshest, most blindingly white desert in North America.

This is the 2.3-million-acre Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, the stinking desert of Edward Abbey and Charles Bowden, two writers Urrea notes as influences. But the desert is a different place today, and it is the 21st-century desert landscape that Urrea has rendered in a style that combines fresh descriptive language with a humanity long overdue in the traditionally misanthropic literature of aridity.

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, Mexican farmers have been devastated by competition from U.S. agribusiness. In hopes of a better life — or simply to avoid starvation — men, women and children have been undertaking what may be one of the largest migrations in human history. To counter this flood of human bodies, in the mid-1990s the U.S. Border Patrol ramped up security measures in California and Texas. This strategy, called “Operation Gatekeeper,” didn’t stop the flow of migrants but merely funneled them into Arizona. The Border Patrol’s next step was increasing security in Arizona’s border towns, which pushed migrants out to remote desert areas.

Somehow, nobody in Washington, D.C., thought about what it takes to cross 80 miles of rock and sand when you’re carrying nothing but a pocket knife and a gallon jug of supermarket water. Mothers died in front of their infant children. Older men died of heart attacks. Young men simply disappeared like the contrails of fighter jets dissolving in the sky.

Urrea’s passion and energy, reminiscent of the New Journalism of the 1970s, are well suited to telling the stories of individuals sacrificed to forces beyond their control. He also nods in the direction of John McPhee, the master nature writer whose litanies of evocative names turn understatement into poetry. But Urrea’s own gift for precise and original language should put this book on the map: “The almost cool air hugging the hardpan, not yet ignited by the white flames of the sun, felt blue. It moved slowly with the last stalling breezes of night. Where the predators had made their kills, white down and scattered gray pinfeathers waved like seaweed in a tide. Crickets, wasps, bees. A rusty understory of insectile melody.”

Only when Urrea veers a bit too close to his literary desert-rat predecessors does The Devil’s Highway seem a trifle inauthentic. In the book’s beginning, he melodramatically catalogs the history of death along the Devil’s Highway, the old route from Sonora to California, in a heavy-handed attempt to prefigure the deaths of the migrants. This Satanic desert has been done before, and it’s a one-note rendering of a symphonic landscape.

One of the book’s great strengths is Urrea’s rendering of the border-patrol officers, who are both the hunters and the saviors of la frontera. While Border Patrol officers have, at their own expense, erected stations in the desert where migrants in trouble can call for help, they’re also known for smashing migrants over the head with Maglite flashlights, raping female border crossers, and unleashing the occasional fatal, unprovoked burst of gunfire. Urrea notices homely details, from the beat-up tables and old wood paneling of the border-patrol station to the headbanging rock & roll blasting in between the squawks of their police band radios: “Ten, base, ten. I’m twentied at the Pinacate Lava Flow. I’M GONNA GIVE YOU EVERY INCH OF MY LOVE! Over.”

In the end, the most revealing moments are not dodging “fiendish chollas,” with their jumping barbs, but a simple accounting of dead men’s personal effects. Thirty-year-old Enrique Landeros Garcia slipped on a pair of battered tennis shoes and entrusted his cowboy boots to a friend when he set off on his fatal journey. After he failed to show up, his friend delivered the boots to his wife. “When she saw the boots, she started to cry,” writes Urrea. “She hugged the boots as if they were Enrique himself, and they gave up their smell of leather.” The fates of the dead men who walked the Devil’s Highway may be horrific, but they are not unusual. And Urrea knows that this is where the true power of the story lies.

THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY: A True Story | By LUIS ALBERTO URREA | Little, Brown & Co. | 256 pages | $25 hardcover

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