The 13 migrants killed in a horrific crash in Southern California were among more than 40 people who entered the US illegally in two SUVs through a hole cut in a border fence with Mexico, officials said Wednesday.
Gregory Bovino, the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector chief, told the Associated Press that surveillance footage taken before the early Tuesday wreck captured a Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban drive through the breached fence, which officials say was 10-feet-wide.
It’s believed that those involved were part of a migrant smuggling operation.
The Suburban, which carried 19 people, caught fire on an interstate shortly after it entered the country. All those inside escaped and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents who found them hiding in nearby brush, officials said.
The agents “determined they had entered the country illegally through the breach in the border fence,” Border Patrol said.
The 1997 red Ford Expedition, which was jammed with 25 people, continued traveling before it was T-boned by a semi-truck hauling gravel a short time later, killing 13 inside.
The crash unfolded shortly after 6 a.m. local time near State Route 115 and Norrish Road in Imperial County.
Twelve of the 25 people in the Ford Expedition were pronounced dead at the scene, while one died later at a hospital, according to officials.
“All are suspected to have entered the US illegally,” Border Patrol said Wednesday, adding that the agency is “investigating the smuggling events.”
Seats in the Ford Expedition, designed to hold no more than eight people, had been removed except for those for the driver and front passenger, said Omar Watson, chief of the California Highway Patrol’s border division.
The passengers in the SUV, some of whom were able to pull themselves out of the mangled vehicle, ranged in age from 15 to 53, officials said.
The Mexican government reported that 10 of the dead were identified as its citizens.
The SUV’s driver, who Mexican media said was 22, was from Mexicali, just across the border, and was among those killed.
The 68-year-old driver of the big rig, who is from the nearby California community of El Centro, was hospitalized with moderate injuries.
According to Mexican news site Debate.com, the area where the crash occurred is near where thousands of people cross the border daily to work in the farming industry.
It’s common for migrants to cross the border in buses or trucks from November through March, the site said.
The opening in the border fence that the vehicles rolled through was about 30 miles east of the crash scene. It was made of steel bollards that were built before former President Donald Trump had taller border barriers installed that go deeper into the ground.
“Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life,” Bovino said in a statement. “Those who may be contemplating crossing the border illegally should pause to think of the dangers that all too often end in tragedy, tragedies our Border Patrol Agents and first responders are unfortunately very familiar with.”
Authorities say the tractor-trailer involved in the crash was heading north on a highway when the SUV pulled in front of it from a road with a stop sign.
A California Highway Patrol report said the Expedition entered an intersection right in front of the big rig, which hit the left side of the SUV. It was not clear whether the SUV ran a stop sign or had stopped before entering the highway.
With Post wires
Additional reporting by Jorge Fitz-Gibbon