A horrific California SUV crash that killed 13 was linked to earlier crossing of US-Mexico border

Charles Davis,Azmi Haroun
·4 min read
GettyImages 1231489829
Hugo Chavez, an activist with the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights, places crosses at the scene where an SUV carrying 25 people collided with a semi-truck killing 13 on Highway 115 near the Mexican border on March 2, 2021 in Holtville, California. Gina Ferazzi via LA Times/ Getty Images
  • A crash that left 13 people dead on Tuesday may be linked to a breach of the US-Mexico border.

  • US authorities said the crash occurred after two vehicles broke through a border fence.

  • More than two dozen people were piled inside a 1997 Ford Expedition that normally seats eight.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

A horrific crash between an over-packed SUV and a tractor-trailer in California may be linked to an earlier incident involving two vehicles that breached the US-Mexico border wall, American authorities said Wednesday.

The crash on Tuesday near El Centro, California, a dozen miles from the US-Mexico border, left 13 people dead. A big rig collided in an intersection with a Ford Expedition that was packed with 25 people inside, according to law enforcement.

Initially, a spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection said the incident may have involved farmworkers.

But a day later, US officials suggested the victims were likely migrants who had been brought across the border that morning.

"Initial investigation into the origins of the vehicles indicate a potential nexus to the aforementioned breach in the border wall," El Centro Sector Chief Patrol Agent Gregory Bovino said in a statement. "Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life."

Border Patrol said it is conducting a related investigation into people smuggling but is unable to release further details due to "pending potential prosecution."

Just before 6:00 a.m. local time, CBP said agents received a call about a red Chevrolet Suburban engulfed in flames. Soon after, agents found 19 people hiding nearby in the brush and determined they had entered the country through a recently discovered 10-foot breach in the border wall separating the US and Mexico, the agency said in a statement.

Surveillance footage showed that there were actually two vehicles that crossed, CBP said.

Less than an hour later, CBP said it received another call: this one about the crash that left 13 dead.

The driver was a 28-year-old resident of Mexicali, Mexico, according to Arturo Platero, a spokesman for the El Centro office of the California Highway Patrol. Platero added that the car was a burgundy 1997 Ford Expedition, and it was struck on its left side after speeding into an intersection. The driver died in the accident.

On Wednesday, Platero told Insider that CHP was actively investigating the incident and that all other passengers are being treated for injuries in nearby hospitals. In a Thursday press release, Platero added that the other 12 passengers were injured, with at least half suffering major injuries.

Almost all of the injured passengers were Mexican or Guatemalan citizens, according to Platero.

After the crash, the Mexican consulate in Calexico issued a statement, saying, "Tragically, as of now, local authorities report that thirteen people have died, of which ten are confirmed to be Mexican citizens."

The Times of San Diego reported that another victim in the crash was a Guatemalan national. Insider reached out to the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles for comment and confirmation.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that two women who died in the crash were Guatemalan. Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona, a 23-year old Guatemalan woman, was killed in the horrific crash, and her mother suffered major injuries.

Lauro Barajas, an organizer with the United Farm Workers, told Insider he was in the area when he heard about the accident. At first, because of the time of the incident, the number of people involved, and the location, he thought the victims might be agricultural laborers.

"So right away I went to the hospital," he said. "I was thinking that if workers from the area were the ones in the accident, then the families were going to be visiting them and seeing how they were doing. Which was not the case."

After speaking to the Mexican consulate, Barajas said he was convinced that this was a situation involving "people crossing the border."

Laborers in the area told him that while they are often expected to load into a vehicle beyond its capacity - employers often require them to, Barajas said - more than two dozen would not be in just one SUV. "The situation is bad for farmworkers," he said, "but it is not that bad."

CBP officials insist Tuesday's crash did not follow any high-speed chase. But some immigrant rights organizations are skeptical.

Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, told Insider there has been "pattern of crashes instigated by Border Patrol chases and past attempts to cover up CBP actions [that] raises questions about what happened here."

"We encourage anyone with direct knowledge of a possible high-speed chase to come forward," Guerrero added.

A ProPublica investigation found that Border Patrol is involved in a crash every nine days, and that 1 in 3 car chases involving Border Patrol results in a crash.

Have a news tip regarding this crash? Email these reporters: cdavis@insider.com and aharoun@insider.com

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