The more than two dozen people who were in an SUV that collided with a semitruck, killing 13 earlier this week near the U.S.-Mexico border, were from Mexico and Guatemala, consulate officials from the countries said.
The deadly collision occurred in Southern California just 10 miles from the border, where two vehicles entered the U.S. through a 10-foot hole in the border fence, Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday.
At least 10 of the people killed in the crash were Mexican nationals, a Mexican government official said. 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.
Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan Consul in Los Angeles, confirmed that a 23-year-old woman from Guatemala died in the crash and two other women from Guatemala remained hospitalized with injuries.
Border Patrol said all the victims of the crash are suspected to have entered the country illegally and was investigating potential ties to human smuggling. 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.
“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.”
Here’s what we know Thursday:
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.
Ten victims were from Mexico, said Roberto Velasco, director of North American affairs for Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department. 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.”
At least one of the six families they located is in San Diego; the remaining families are in Mexico, Beltran Mainero said. 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 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.
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.
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 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.”
A USA TODAY NETWORK special report | Win:A 2,000-mile search for answers
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