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Tucson Weekly Danger in Numbers

Don't tempt fate on the devil's highway.

By Kevin Franklin

MAY 4, 1998:  DO YOU HEAR that?" I ask Luke. The sound of a decrepit, muffler-free and overburdened vehicle approaches our camp in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

He nods, then asks, "See any lights?"

"No, but I do see it--and it's a van," I report.

"That's bad," he says.

It's bad because only one kind of person drives a two-wheel-drive van, with the lights off in the middle of the night a stone's throw north of the Mexican border--smugglers.

What they're smuggling--people, drugs or both--remains to be seen, but we seem about to find out. They're headed right into our camp.

This is the point where brave men grab their guns, prudent men disappear into the dark and guys like us stand around waiting to see what happens next.

Luke Evans is leading this trip for the Arizona Site Stewards, a group of volunteers who monitor, research and protect archaeological sites. We're following El Camino del Diablo (The Devil's Highway) across the refuge. For much of its length, the highway is only a few miles north of the border. At this juncture, we're near an old camp called Tule Well.

My hope that the van would simply pass through our little camp like some strange apparition fades as it lurches to a halt. The driver's side tire is not flat; it's gone. Tomorrow we'll discover pieces of the missing tire for miles along the highway.

The van doors open and four men pile out. Vergial Harp, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outdoor recreation planner, joined our trip earlier in the day. As the highest authority in the group, this strange and potentially dangerous situation becomes his problem. As I watch Vergial approach the van, I'm torn between wanting to back him up, and fearing the back of the van will fling open and release a barrage of gunfire.

Illegals on foot don't really concern me. For the most part, they're hard-working migrant farmers coming north to make a few bucks. My ancestors did basically the same thing by crossing the Atlantic. But a bunch of guys driving across the border, in a van, just screams "drug smugglers." And drug smugglers could mean just a couple of schleps hauling drugs, or it could mean some real bad dudes, with guns and desperate circumstances.

Luke and I walk over and join Vergial. With my broken Spanish, I'm the de-facto translator. (If only my high school Spanish teachers could see me now.)

Standing near the van, we realize a lot more than just four guys are on this little El Norte excursion. (Border Patrol agents ultimately figured there were 17 hidden away in there.)

Most of my conversation is with an old man who asks if we can spare a tire. Milling in the background is a younger man, wearing a Chicago Bulls jacket, who seems less interested in asking and more interested in taking. Having been helped many times in the past by Mexicans, Luke and I feel some obligation to help these folks out. Plus, we aren't looking forward to spending the night with them.

But then I see another guy come out of the van, pull out a cell phone, and try to make a call. At this point, the proverbial shoe has dropped. Migrant farm workers aren't known for carrying cell phones.

Vergial, Luke and I step back for a huddle about our circumstance. Fortunately, Vergial grasps the dynamics of the situation better than Luke and I.

"Let's grab our gear and go," Vergial says.

As he describes it later, these are not law-abiding tourists. They know what they're doing is illegal. We know what they're doing is illegal. And most importantly, they know we know.

At this point it's dark, they're even more unsure of our numbers than we are of theirs, and they have no idea if we're armed (we're not, unless you count chili for dinner). We're at a tactical stalemate. However, if they learn how few of us there are and how deep our sense of self-preservation runs, they might switch from asking for a tire to demanding a vehicle. They have little to lose at this point. The Border Patrol will be flying overhead in the morning and their goose is cooked unless they get out of here right now.

So we bolt.

We drive far out of walking range in the opposite direction of their travel and make camp again. Just another night on the Devil's Highway.

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