Barely a mile from where an SUV packed with 25 people struck a tractor-trailer — killing 13 inside — a cemetery with unmarked bricks is a burial ground for migrants who died crossing the border from Mexico to remote California desert.
Authorities are investigating whether human smuggling was involved in Tuesday's early-morning collision that killed the 22-year-old male driver of the SUV and 12 passengers. The Mexican government said 10 of the dead were Mexican citizens and that nationalities of the three others who died was undetermined.
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 also was 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 maximize 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 U.S. 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, whose brother Duncan strongly advocated for border wall construction as a congressman.
Illegal 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.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said late 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 125 miles (200 kilometers) 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 Watson.
The Border Patrol said its agents were not pursuing the vehicle.
People in the vehicle ranged in age from 15 to 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 hospitalized with moderate injuries.
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.
The crash occurred around 6:15 a.m. under clear, sunny skies at an intersection just outside Holtville, about 11 miles (18 kilometers) north of the border. Authorities said the tractor-trailer and its two empty containers were northbound on State Highway 115 when the SUV pulled in front of it from a road with a stop sign.
A California Highway Patrol report said the SUV entered an intersection directly in front of the big-rig, which hit the left side of the SUV. Both vehicles came to a halt on a dirt shoulder.
It’s not clear if the SUV ran a stop sign or had stopped before entering the highway. Speeds were also unknown.
The speed limit for tractor-trailers on the highway is 55 mph (88.5 kph), according to CHP Officer Jake Sanchez. The other road is also 55 mph for vehicles.
A 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would easily exceed the payload limit, which taxes the brakes and makes it tougher to steer, said Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation.
“You’re going to have extended stopping distances, delayed reactions to steering inputs and potential over-reaction to any type of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting business.
SUVs of that age tended to be top-heavy even without carrying a lot of weight, Borris said.
“With all of that payload above the vehicle’s center of gravity, it’s going to make it even more unstable,” he said.
The crash occurred amid verdant farms that grow a wide variety of vegetables and alfalfa used for cattle feed. Many workers commute daily from Mexico during the winter harvest, taking buses and SUVs to the fields from 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.