For centuries, the Devil’s Highway, a path through the desert in southern Arizona where water sources can be separated by 100 miles, was one of the harshest places in North America, killing many hundreds of Spanish conquistadors, gold prospectors, and migrants. But fatalities tapered off at the end of the 19th century, when a railroad started taking people around it. It still occasionally claimed lives, but nothing like it had before. Then in the early 2000s, the route started killing people again. It was suddenly as deadly as it had ever been. And no one really knew why.
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The main cause, it turns out, was a crackdown on illegal immigration along other sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. With agents focusing on cities like El Paso and San Diego, the desert once again emerged as an option.
One of the more infamous modern tragedies along the Devil’s Highway took place in the spring of 2001, when a large group set out from the Mexican border town of Senoyta led by an experienced guide. The tragic result—and many others like it—helped researchers develop the Death Index, a new model for predicting dehydration fatalities.