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Human smuggling suspected in crash that killed 13 in Imperial County

A man kneels to place small wooden crosses in the dirt
An activist with the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights places crosses at the scene of Tuesday’s fatal crash involving an SUV and a big rig in Holtville, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

When word spread that more than a dozen people had been killed in a crash at an intersection about two miles northwest of the small town of Holtville, some thought it might have been farmworkers headed to start their long day in the nearby agricultural fields.

But things didn’t add up. The vehicle was all wrong. Not a van or a bus. The number of people crammed into the SUV was far too high for a vehicle that normally would hold seven or eight passengers.

And then there was the debris field. Missing from it was a tell-tale sign, for some advocates, of farmworkers. There were no lunchboxes.

But signs of the tragic ending of a tale, in this land of migrants and immigrants both rooted to Imperial County and passing through, were everywhere.

“It certainly doesn’t give you any relief to think, ‘Oh it’s not farmworkers,’” said Elizabeth Strater, spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers. “Regardless of who ... human lives were lost.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said they suspected the deadly crash was tied to human smuggling after the Ford Expedition and a red Suburban were caught on surveillance footage coming through a breach in the border fence near the Gordon’s Well exit off Interstate 8.

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Border Patrol agents insist they did not stop or pursue either vehicle, although community activists express skepticism. Either way, the outcome illustrated the high stakes involved in human smuggling.

The Suburban was found engulfed in flames, its 19 occupants discovered hiding in the nearby brush. The Expedition, which carried 25 people, was struck by a big rig, killing 13. At least 10 of the dead were Mexican nationals. At least three Guatemalan nationals were among the victims: a 23-year-old woman who died, her 46-year-old mother who was injured and a 22-year-old woman who was injured.

“When I pulled up on scene, there were bodies everywhere,” said Alex Silva, the Holtville fire chief. “I’ve been doing this for 29 years and that’s the worst scene I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to calls where we’ve had four or five people dead. I’ve gone to calls where we had a bus accident that had 24 people. But it wasn’t the fatalities that we had in this one.”

“I’ve never seen an SUV with 25 people in it. I can’t even imagine what that must have felt like being cooped up in there.”

The chain of events leading to the crash began in the predawn hours Tuesday, when two vehicles drove through a 10-foot breach in the boundary fence separating Southern California from Mexico.

A local Border Patrol agent, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak, said crossings were “a regular occurrence” at Gordon’s Well, but most were done on foot.

What amazed the agent was that “a hole had been cut” in the first place. While there is caution tape around the breach, the hole has since been patched and reinforced with two concrete pillars.

The number of people in the SUV was also a surprising revelation, and the agent estimated each person could fetch a fee of thousands, meaning such a haul may have translated into six figures.

A 28-year-old Mexicali man drove the burgundy Expedition with 24 passengers; it is unclear who was driving the Suburban.

Shortly before 6 a.m., Border Patrol agents were informed that the Suburban was in flames near the intersection of Interstate 8 and State Route 115. It wasn’t until minutes later, according to the agency, that agents reported the breach in the fence.

Soon after, agents said they reviewed surveillance footage and spotted the Expedition and Suburban leaving the area near the breach.

The Holtville Fire Department responded to the vehicle fire. When Silva arrived, he saw that all of the Suburban’s seats were removed except the driver’s and front passenger seat.

“I think because of the weight of all the passengers, either the motor or transmission went out, the motor started smoking up and they pulled over to the side of the road. Everybody got out,” Silva said.

Border Patrol agents apprehended the 19 people, who they determined “had entered the country illegally through the breach in the border fence.”

As Silva was clearing the scene, he got a second call. When he arrived at the intersection of State Highway 115 and Norrish Road in Imperial County, it didn’t take long for the scale of the tragedy to become apparent.

“I counted seven dead people and I could see a lot more up ahead of me,” Silva said. “It didn’t hit me how severe it was until we started counting all the patients.”

On Wednesday, the firefighters had a meeting with a counselor to talk about what they saw and clear their heads.

“We could have had ER doctors with ER equipment there and it wouldn’t have changed anything,” Silva has told his team. “The impact was so severe that it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

While it’s unclear what caused the crash, Jacqueline Arellano, 38, who works with the nonprofit Border Angels, said crashes involving vehicles packed with people aren’t unusual in the region. Arellano, who grew up in El Centro, recalled a crash in 2003 in which she witnessed a Border Patrol vehicle chase an SUV packed with people on Highway 8 heading west toward San Diego.

She and other community advocates are concerned that Tuesday’s crash was the result of a Border Patrol chase, despite officials saying it wasn’t. The nonprofit Alliance San Diego asked on Twitter for people to come forward if they have information that indicates the Border Patrol did pursue the SUV before the crash.

Word of the accident spread quickly in Holtville — a city of under 7,000 people — which residents tout as the “carrot capital of the world.” Every year before the pandemic, the town held a carrot festival featuring a parade and the crowning of a carrot queen.

“Holtville is kind of small town America,” said Nick Wells, Holtville city manager. “The kind of town where everybody kind of knows everybody.”

Wells spent most of Tuesday fielding calls from residents concerned that someone they knew might have been among the dead.

Holtville Mayor Mike Goodsell said he was saddened when he heard about the crash, adding that human smuggling is a part of life along the border. Incidents are often covered by the local press, he said, but the number of people killed was shocking.

“It doesn’t happen that often,” Goodsell said. “It’s so tragic.”

David Kyle, a sociology professor at UC Davis and an expert on human smuggling, said that financial gain could account for the number of people crammed into the Expedition.

“If you’re the smuggler, whether it’s 10 or 25, the upside is very clear that if you get through that’s more profit,” he said. “On the other hand, also, it seems that because of COVID, because of the economic downturn across the border and then the continuing demand on this side of the border, there is pressure or demand for smuggling services.”

Although some questions remain unanswered, Kyle said one thing is clear: “It must have been hell in that SUV even before the crash.”

Times staff writers Faith Pinho and Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.


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