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Human smuggling probe: SUV in California crash entered through hole in border fence, officials say

8 min read
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/03/03/imperial-county-california-suv-truck-deadly-crash-what-to-know/6900800002/

Thirteen people who died after a semitruck slammed into their packed SUV near the U.S.-Mexico border were among 44 who entered the United States through a 10-foot hole cut into Southern California’s border fence, Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday.

“All are suspected to have entered the U.S. illegally,” the agency said in a statement. “Border Patrol is investigating the smuggling events.”

Two cars were seen on surveillance video leaving the area of the fence hole around 6 a.m. PT Tuesday, according to the agency.

One vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban, carried 19 people and caught fire after entering the U.S. and traveling 30 miles to the intersection of Interstate 8 and State Route 115, the agency said. All passengers escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.

The cause of the fire was not immediately clear.

The other vehicle, a 1997 Ford Expedition with seats removed, was carrying 25 people when a big rig hit the SUV’s side at the intersection of SR 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, California, said Omar Watson, Highway Patrol Division chief.

The crash occurred about 10 miles north of the border. A Mexican government official said at least 10 of the people who died were Mexican nationals.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents reported a 10-foot breach in the International Boundary Fence between Mexico and the United States on March 2, 2021.

“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. “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.”

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.”

Breaking news:At least 13 dead after truck slams into SUV carrying 25 near US-Mexico border

Here’s what we know now:

What happened in the crash?

A preliminary report released Tuesday by the Highway Patrol said the SUV, driven by a 28-year-old resident of Mexico, “entered the intersection directly in front” of a Peterbilt truck. Police said it wasn’t clear why the SUV entered the intersection, but the truck struck its left side, immediately killing the SUV driver.

Watson said 12 people were killed at the scene and a 13th person died in the hospital. Several people were flung from the SUV while others managed to get out by the time police responded, Watson said. A few others had to be freed from the SUV.

“It would be premature for me to speculate or discuss what caused this collision. What we have to keep in mind is that 13 people died in this crash,” Watson said Tuesday. “It’s a very sad situation.”

The crash explained visually

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Paramedics took 11 people to area hospitals, police said. Seven went to El Centro Regional Medical Center, where one of them died. The status of three of those patients wasn’t immediately available Wednesday, but the remaining three were transferred to Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Brawley.

Of those three, one was released with minor injuries while the other two were flown to Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. They were to be treated for life-threatening injuries, said Karina Lopez, Pioneers public affairs liaison.

Going back to 2016 there have been three collisions at Highway 115 and Norrish Road.

Who was killed and injured in the crash?

Police have not released the names of the victims. The ages of those in the SUV range from 15 to 53. No children were killed in the crash, police said.

The SUV’s driver was from Mexicali, Mexico. Roberto Velasco, director of North American affairs for Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, confirmed that 10 of the people killed were Mexican.

The Mexican Consulate in Calexico said Wednesday that it had begun notifying the families of the Mexican nationals killed in the crash, but they shared few new details.

“We know that there are families in the United States, as well as in several states in Mexico. The consulate has reached out to six families of the deceased individuals,” said Mario Beltran Mainero, press officer for the consulate. “We’re working to reach all of them.”

The consulate declined to say whether the 10 Mexican nationals killed, and the others who were injured, were part of a smuggling operation, deferring to U.S. officials.

Beltran Mainero said at least one of the six families they located is in San Diego; the remaining families are in Mexico. Four Mexican nationals who sustained minor injuries were released from the hospital in El Centro on Tuesday and were not in the custody of U.S. immigration or border officials, he said.

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.

The truck driver, Joe Beltran, 68, of El Centro, was also taken to the hospital with “major injuries,” the preliminary crash report said.

Why were so many people in the SUV?

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that special agents from its Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego “have initiated a human smuggling investigation” but offered no further details.

A 1997 Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would easily exceed the payload limit, taxing the brakes and making it tougher to steer the vehicle, said Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation.

“You’re going to have extended stopping distances, delayed reactions to steering inputs and potential over-reaction to any type of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting business.

SUVs of that age tend to be top-heavy even when not carrying a lot of weight, Borris said. “With all of that payload above the vehicle’s center of gravity, it’s going to make it even more unstable.”

Guatemalan casualties

Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan Consul in Los Angeles confirmed that a 23-year-old woman from Guatemala died in Tuesday’s crash. Two other women, ages 46 and 22, received contusions and internal hemorrhages. They remained hospitalized Wednesday in stable condition, he added.

However, Paniagua said that there were between eight to ten 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 said.

The consulate has already contacted the family members of the 23-year-old woman killed in the crash who live in New York and in Guatemala, he said.

According to information provided by family members to the 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 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.”

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 is the area like?

Barely a mile from the site of the crash, a cemetery with unmarked bricks is a burial ground for migrants who died crossing the border from Mexico.

In 2001, John Hunter founded Water Station, a volunteer group that leaves jugs of water in giant plastic drums for dehydrated migrants. “I was trying to figure out how to stop the deaths,” said Hunter, whose brother Duncan strongly advocated for border wall construction as a congressman.

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 Donald 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.

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 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.

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.

United Farm Workers’ spokesperson Marc Grossman said union workers had learned the people in the SUV were not farmworkers, though tragedies such as these used to be distressingly common for farmworkers. He recalled an accident in 1999 that killed 13 tomato pickers in west Fresno County after a crash impaled many on their own tools.

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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