HOLTVILLE, Calif. (AP) – Barely a mile from where an SUV filled with 25 people hit a trailer truck – killing 13 inside – a cemetery with unmarked bricks is a burial place for the migrants who died crossing the border from Mexico into the remote California wilderness.
Authorities are investigating whether human trafficking was involved in Tuesday’s morning collision that killed the 22-year-old driver of the SUV and 12 passengers. The Mexican government said 10 of the dead were Mexican citizens and the nationality of the other three dead was undetermined.
The seats on the 1997 Ford Expedition have been removed with the exception of the driver and right front passenger, said Omar Watson, head of the California Highway Patrol’s border division.
The cause of the collision was undetermined, authorities said, and it was also unclear why so many people were crammed into a vehicle built to hold eight people safely. But smugglers are known to pack people in extremely dangerous conditions to maximize their profits.
The accident happened at the height of the harvest in California’s Imperial Valley, which supplies much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to U.S. supermarkets. Holtville, a traffic-free town with a gazebo in its large central plaza, calls itself the carrot capital of the world.
The area became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after stronger law enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas. Many have crossed the All-American Canal, an aqueduct that runs along the border and releases water from the Colorado River to the farms through an extensive network of canals.
At the back of Terrace Park cemetery in Holtville, simple bricks – rows of them – mark the unidentified remains of those who have died, many of whom are migrants.
In 2001, John Hunter founded Water Station, a group of volunteers who leave jugs of water in giant plastic drums for dehydrated migrants.
“I was trying to figure out how to stop the dead,” said Hunter, whose brother Duncan advocated strongly for building a border wall as a member of Congress.
Illegal crossings fell sharply in the mid-2000s, but the area remained a draw for migrants and was a priority for building walls under former President Donald Trump. His administration’s first wall project was in Calexico.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Police said Tuesday evening that officers from its Homeland Security Investigation Unit “have opened an investigation into human trafficking (into Tuesday’s crash). is in progress and no further details are available at this time. “
When police arrived about 200 miles east of San Diego, some passengers were trying to get out of the crumpled SUV while others were walking through the fields. The front of the platform was pushed into the left side of the SUV and two empty trailers were driven behind.
“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” Watson said.
The border patrol said its agents were not chasing the vehicle.
Those in the vehicle were between 15 and 53 years old and were a mix of men and women, officials said. The driver was from Mexicali, Mexico, just across the border, and was among those killed. The 68-year-old driver of the large platform from nearby El Centro was hospitalized with moderate injuries.
The injuries to the passengers ranged from mild to severe and included fractures and head trauma. They were treated in several hospitals. One person was treated in a hospital and was released.
The crash happened around 6:15 a.m. under clear, sunny skies at an intersection just outside Holtville, about 11 miles north of the border. Authorities said the trailer truck and its two empty containers were heading north on State Highway 115 when the SUV pulled up in front of it from a road with a stop sign.
A report from California Highway Patrol said the SUV entered an intersection directly in front of the large rig, which struck the left side of the SUV. The two vehicles came to rest on a shoulder of earth.
It is not known if the SUV ran a stop sign or if it stopped before entering the freeway. The speeds were also unknown.
The speed limit for semi-trailers on the highway is 55 mph (88.5 km / h), according to CHP agent Jake Sanchez. The other route is also 55 mph for vehicles.
A 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If there were 25 people inside it would easily exceed the payload limit, putting on the brakes and making driving more difficult, said Frank Borris, former head of the Defect Investigation Bureau of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“You’re going to have extended stopping distances, delayed reactions to steering commands, and a potential overreaction to any kind of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting firm.
SUVs of this age tended to be very heavy even without having a lot of weight, Borris said.
“With all this payload above the vehicle’s center of gravity, it’s going to make it even more unstable,” he said.
The accident happened amid lush green farms that cultivate a wide variety of vegetables and alfalfa used for livestock feed. Many workers commute daily from Mexico during the winter harvest, taking buses and SUVs to the fields of downtown Calexico just before dawn.
Associated Press reporters Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles, Julie Watson in San Diego, Anita Snow in Phoenix, Tom Krisher in Detroit and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed.