At least 13 people, 10 of them Mexican nationals, were killed when a tractor-trailer slammed into an SUV crammed with 25 people on a dusty Southern Californian road near the US-Mexico border.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents opened an investigation into whether human smuggling was involved, an agency spokeswoman said in a statement.
Handmade wooden crosses stretched in a line across a patch of dry grass and dirt by the roadside, and a seat covered in what appeared to be blood lay near the crumpled Ford Expedition, as the desolate highway through the farming community of Holtville remained closed on Tuesday afternoon.
The white tractor-trailer cab with yellow trim was still smashed into the wrecked side of the maroon SUV. The entire driver’s side of the smaller vehicle caved in, and the passenger side was flung wide open.
People in the vehicle were aged between 15 and 53 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 big rig, who is from nearby El Centro, was hospitalised with moderate injuries.
“Unfortunately, consular staff have confirmed the death of 10 Mexicans so far,” Roberto Velasco Alvarez, the foreign ministry’s director for North America, said in a tweet in Spanish.
Con respecto al accidente automovilístico reportado hoy en la zona de Imperial Valley, @ConsulMexCal ha permanecido en comunicación con las autoridades locales.
Desgraciadamente, personal del Consulado ha confirmado el fallecimiento de diez personas mexicanas hasta el momento.
— Roberto Velasco Álvarez (@r_velascoa) March 2, 2021
Translation: Regarding the car accident reported today in the Imperial Valley area @ConsulMexCal has remained in communication with local authorities. Unfortunately, consular staff have confirmed the death of 10 Mexican people so far.
Mexicans were also among the injured, he said.
Passengers’ injuries ranged from minor to severe and included fractures and head trauma. They were being cared for at several hospitals. One person was treated at a hospital and released.
Seats of the 1997 Ford Expedition were removed except for the driver and right-front passenger’s, said Omar Watson, chief of the California Highway Patrol’s border division.
The cause of the collision was undetermined, authorities said, and it was also unknown why so many people were crammed into a vehicle built to hold eight people safely. But smugglers have been known to pack people in extremely unsafe conditions to maximise profits.
The crash occurred during the height of harvest in California’s Imperial Valley, which provides much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to US supermarkets. Holtville, a no-stoplight town with a gazebo in its large central square, calls itself the world’s carrot capital.
The area became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after heightened enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas. Many crossed the All-American Canal, an aqueduct that runs along the border and unleashes Colorado River water to farms through a vast network of canals.
At the back of Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, single bricks – rows of them – mark the unidentified remains of people who died, many of them migrants.
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.
Irregular crossings fell sharply in the mid-2000s but the area has remained a draw for migrants and was a priority for wall construction under former President Donald Trump. His administration’s first wall project was in Calexico.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said late on Tuesday that agents in its Homeland Security Investigations unit “have initiated a human smuggling investigation [into Tuesday’s crash]. The investigation is ongoing and no further details are available at this time.”
When police arrived about 200km (125 miles) east of San Diego, some passengers were trying to crawl out of the crumpled SUV while others were wandering around the fields. The rig’s front end was pushed into the SUV’s left side and two empty trailers were jackknifed behind it.
“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” said Omar Watson, chief of the highway patrol’s border division.