Thirteen people killed in one of the deadliest border crashes on record were among 44 people who entered the U.S. through a hole cut into Southern California’s border fence with Mexico, the Border Patrol said Wednesday. (March 3)
HOLTVILLE, Calif. – Eight people remained hospitalized and a teen was unconscious Thursday after an SUV carrying 25 migrants from Mexico and Guatemalacollided with a semitruck near the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this week, killing 13 people.
Border Patrol officials said all the victims of the crash are suspected to have entered the country illegally, and the agency was investigating potential ties to human smuggling.
The deadly collision occurred early Tuesday in Southern California just 10 miles north of the border, where two vehicles entered the U.S. through a 10-foot hole in the fence, Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday.
The driver of the 1997 Ford Expedition, which was carrying 25 passengers with its rear seats removed, was from Mexicali, Mexico, California Highway Patrol said. The other SUV that crossed the border, a Chevrolet Suburban that was carrying 19 people, caught fire after entering the U.S., but all passengers were able to escape before they were taken into Border Patrol custody.
The tragedy has brought calls by some for a more thorough look at the humanitarian crisis at the border. In a statement, Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, whose 56th Assembly District includes Holtville, offered condolences for the victims and stressed “comprehensive immigration reform” is necessary to prevent the dangers people face while crossing the border.
“Our broken immigration system is a humanitarian, public and economic crisis impacting communities on both sides of the border,” he said. “Tragedies like this place wider public attention on the dark realities of our immigration struggle in the United States and the danger immigrant families face for a chance at a better life.”
Here’s what we know:
Who was killed and injured in the crash?
The ages of the passengers in the Expedition ranged from 15 to 53. No children were killed, police said.
At least 10 of the 13 people killed in the crash were Mexican nationals, the Mexican Consulate in Calexico said. Three were from the state of Oaxaca, three from Michoacán, and one each from the states of Baja California, Guerrero, Morelos and Nayarit. The Consulate said Thursday it had contacted the families of all the Mexican nationals killed.
At least three people from Guatemala were also in the crash, according to Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan Consul in Los Angeles. A 23-year-old woman from Guatemala died in the crash, and her mother, 46, was injured and released from the hospital Thursday, Paniagua said. The third person is a 22-year-old woman who remains hospitalized in stable condition.
Paniagua said the consulate contacted the family members of the 23-year-old woman killed in the crash who live in New York and in Guatemala.
Five of the people injured in the crash were in San Diego area hospitals Thursday, including two Mexican adults in stable condition, with fractures, and a male minor from Mexico who was intubated, the Consulate said.
Three other migrants, including two adults from Mexico and a minor, were hospitalized in Palm Springs. The two Mexican adults also had fractures but were in stable condition, and one tested positive for COVID-19, the consulate said. The female minor was unconscious, and the consulate said they have been unable to determine her identity or nationality.
Mario Beltran Mainero, press officer for the Mexican Consulate in Calexico, said at least one of the six families they located is in San Diego; the remaining families are in Mexico. Four Mexican nationals injured in the crash were released from the hospital in El Centro on Tuesday, but they were not in federal custody, he added.
One man, Tony Hernandez, told Univision his relatives from Michoacán, 25 and 32, died in the crash. He said they were on their way to Los Angeles. “I already talked to my relatives. They are devastated,” Hernandez said.
Paniagua, the Guatemalan Consul in Los Angeles, said that in addition to the one woman killed and the two injured, there were between eight to 10 people whose identities had not been confirmed yet. He said it was almost certain that some of the other migrants killed or injured in the crash are also from Guatemala.
“Since yesterday, we’ve been receiving and establishing an intra-consular coordination among our sister consulates in New York, in Dallas and in Houston because several family members had reported their suspicions that their relatives were on board that truck,” Paniagua saidWednesday.
The semitruck driver, Joe Beltran, 68, of El Centro, was also taken to the hospital with “major injuries,” the preliminary crash report said.
What do authorities know about possible ties to human smuggling?
Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday that 44 people entered the U.S. between the SUVs. Two cars were seen on surveillance video leaving the area of the fence hole around 6 a.m. PT Tuesday, according to the agency.
The Suburban traveled 30 miles to the intersection of Interstate 8 and State Route 115 before it caught fire, the agency said. The cause of the fire was not immediately known.
The Expedition was only 10 miles from the border when the big rig struck the side of the vehicle at State Route 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, California, said Omar Watson, Highway Patrol Division chief.
“At no point” did Border Patrol “attempt to stop or pursue either vehicle,” the agency said. The opening in the fence was about 30 miles east of the crash in the heart of California’s Imperial Valley, a major farming region. The area has long been a significant route for illegal border crossings.
“We pray for the accident victims and their families during this difficult time,” Gregory Bovino, the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector chief, said in a statement Wednesday. “Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life. Those who may be contemplating crossing the border illegally should pause to think of the dangers that all too often end in tragedy tragedies our Border Patrol Agents and first responders are unfortunately very familiar with.”
According to information provided by family members to the Guatemalan consulate, some of the migrants involved in the crash had left Guatemala on Feb. 2 on their way to the U.S., Paniagua said. They made their way to Mexicali, where they were kept inside a home for eight days, before smugglers transported them across the U.S.-Mexico border, he added.
Paniagua cast some of the blame for Tuesday’s crash on misinformation circulating among migrants, and also coming from smugglers, about the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They have to know that the border remains just as guarded as it has always been. I think there has been some bad messaging, and that has stimulated in certain ways the migration flows in the last few days,” he said. “There are some policy changes, but they are so small that they don’t really benefit in any way these migrants, who may have received a message that is very different from what is really happening.”
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He feared a possible increase in similar incidents in the future and said that the consulate in Los Angeles would be paying close attention should California emerge as an alternate migration route to south Texas. That remains the principal crossing point along the U.S.-Mexico border for migrants from Guatemala and Central America, including large numbers of accompanied and unaccompanied minors.
What to know about the El Centro Sector
Tuesday’s breach in the border fence, prior to the deadly crash, occurred in an area with older fencing built after 2007. It was made of steel bollards that were built before former President Donald Trump blanketed much of the border with taller barriers that go deeper into the ground.
While apprehensions have decreased in El Centro in recent months, the number of migrants that border agents have encountered along the entire U.S.-Mexico border is up. In January, agents apprehended more than 75,000 migrants, the highest numbers since the 2019 surge in migrant families overwhelmed border officials.
In the early 2000s, the El Centro Sector, which covers most of Imperial County’s border with Mexico, was among the busiest smuggling routes along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Border Patrol statistics. But apprehensions began to decrease significantly after 2007, when the U.S. government installed border fence upgrades along the region.
The number of migrant apprehensions remained steady since then. They bottomed out after Trump took office in 2017. But they climbed steadily once again, and peaked in October 2020, despite restrictions at the border over the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Trump administration installed more than 20 miles of 30-foot bollard fencing in the El Centro Sector, including the first sections of new barriers completed under his term. Another 11 miles of fencing are under contract, and 13 miles of secondary barriers are in the pre-construction phase, according to CBP. But it remains unclear if those sections will get built, since President Joe Biden has pledged to stop border wall construction.
The area is also a large commuter stretch for thousands of farmworkers who legally cross the border each day. Imperial Valley, which provides much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to U.S. supermarkets, is wrapping up its winter harvest. Many workers commute daily from Mexico during the harvest, taking buses and SUVs to the fields from downtown Calexico just before dawn.
Contributing: Kate Cimini, Emily LeCoz, Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; The Associated Press; Colin Atagi, (Palm Springs) Desert Sun; Javier Arce, La Voz Arizona
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