HOLTVILLE, Calif. — The maroon Ford Expedition was so heavy its wheels spun at first in the soft desert sand as it cleared a breach in the border wall. It then sped down a dirt road as Mexico disappeared in the rearview mirror. Twenty-five people held on inside, many jammed on the floor, others hunched half-standing between them.
Near the front was José Eduardo Martinez, 16, who had hitched onto the outlaw ride in hopes of joining his uncle in Utah to work construction. Crammed farther in the back, where the seats had been removed, were Zeferina Mendoza, 33, and her cousin, Rosalia Garcia Gonzalez, 34, who had leads on jobs in California’s strawberry fields. At the wheel was Jairo de Jesus Dueñas, 28, who planned to earn money to buy a car to drive for Uber in Mexico.
They made it 15 miles up a desolate country road in California’s Imperial Valley, 110 miles east of San Diego. Perhaps the driver was distracted or could not see the stop sign in the dawn light. Perhaps he did not realize how long it would take to stop a vehicle loaded with 25 people. The vehicle lurched into the path of a Peterbilt tractor-trailer rig barreling down state Route 115.
Few of the survivors have been able to describe what happened next: the crunch of metal and glass, the bodies flung dozens of feet across the pavement. Twelve people died on the spot, a 13th at a nearby hospital.
José, the teenager, remembered none of it. “When I woke up, I was in the hospital,” he said softly, struggling to speak with 10 inches of surgical staples stretched down his stomach and several more around his waist. Two days had passed by the time he regained consciousness.
The lonely farm road that on March 2 became the scene of one of the deadliest border-related crashes in recent decades is one of hundreds of illicit corridors into the United States. The people who died there became a tragic portrait of an explosion in migration that has begun overwhelming the U.S. government.
Apprehensions of migrants by authorities along the southwest border in March reached 170,000, the highest point in 15 years, up nearly 70% from February, according to preliminary Customs and Border Protection data. Thousands of children and families arriving daily from Central America, driven by violence, natural disasters and the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, have flooded processing centers and created an urgent humanitarian challenge on the border. Children are being kept in detention longer than the law allows, and most families are now being released into the United States because there is often nowhere to hold them.
One major factor in the surge has been a marked jump in the number of single adults coming from Mexico, as the pandemic stalled the country’s economy and left millions without livelihoods. So in the cool predawn darkness of a Tuesday morning in March, 17 Mexicans, along with eight Guatemalans, packed into an SUV in hopes it would be the last leg of their perilous journey.
This account is based on interviews with survivors and family members, agents with the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security Investigations as well as a police report and the federal complaint last week against a Mexican man accused of organizing the deadly trip. The man, José Cruz Noguez, was charged with human smuggling that caused serious injury.
Before piling into the SUV on that fateful morning, they had converged in Mexicali, Mexico, a sprawling border city of 1 million people separated from the United States by a rust-colored steel-beam fence that soars up to 30 feet high in some places.
Peer through the slats and the promise of America beckons: Calexico, the adjacent U.S. town of 40,000, lies just on the other side. Border Patrol vehicles prowl the terrain, a big reason the migrants had placed their lives in the hands of smugglers — at a going rate of $7,500 to $10,000 each — to help penetrate the U.S. fortress.
‘There is no future in Mexico’
José, the oldest of two boys raised in a one-room dry-mud hut in the violent southern Mexican state of Guerrero, was becoming impatient with his family’s situation.
With no computer, José was having to follow classes at school during the pandemic on his cellphone, a frustrating exercise.
“There is no future in Mexico,” he said. “I told Mama I wanted to work in America to support her and my little brother.”
José had grown up hearing about his Uncle Pablo, who had made it to America 16 years ago and had become an expert in framing houses. He had sent money regularly to his children, enabling them to acquire nice clothes, electronics, a new car. Now José was saying he wanted to try his luck.
“I wanted to convince my nephew that the American dream is not what you think; you’re better off staying there and studying,” said the uncle, Pablo Mendoza, 41, who has lived in Utah since 2004. “But when he insisted, I said I would help him. I felt I had no alternative. If he’s going to come, better that it be here.”
His mother, Maria Felix, said that she, too, had tried to dissuade her son. But, ultimately, she relented. “He was always a mature, responsible child,” she said of her eldest son. “He told me not to worry.”
José hatched a plan with his cousin Luis Daniel. They did odd jobs to save money for the trip. On Jan. 24, they set out for Mexicali, where they found a room to rent and someone to get them across.
Soon, they began making attempts — more times than José could count, always under the cover of darkness.
Each time, a coyote helped them scale the border barrier up the Mexico side using a rope ladder, and they slithered down a beam to the California side. Each time, they were promptly arrested by the Border Patrol.
To avoid being placed for weeks or months in a shelter, as is happening with the thousands of young asylum-seekers crossing the border, the boys lied about their ages, telling the agents they were 18. As presumed adults, they were fingerprinted and quickly dropped back in Mexico — to try again.
Over the border wall, and back again
Since peaking in the early 2000s, Mexican immigration to the United States had cratered as family sizes shrank, the Mexican economy expanded and crossings became more perilous and expensive. Between 2009 and 2014, more Mexicans left than arrived in the United States for the first time since the 1940s, drawing the curtain on the biggest immigration wave in modern U.S. history.
But the dynamic has changed since the coronavirus struck.
Mendoza, who was in the Expedition with her cousin, was a single mother who tried to provide for her three daughters by selling tamales and weaving hats in Tlapa de Comonfort, a mountainous region of Guerrero that has long sent migrants to the United States.
They had no refrigerator, stove or television. And the pandemic had made eking out a living even more difficult.
“What I wanted was to buy a plot of land, build a little house,” Mendoza said. “I told my daughters, ‘I am doing this for you,’ and they agreed I should go.”
She stuffed some pesos and two changes of clothes in a backpack and boarded a bus to Mexicali with her cousin, Garcia. Three days later, they checked into one of the seedy hotels a few blocks from the international border that cater to migrants, paying 220 pesos, or about $10, for a 24-hour stay.
“We went out to eat, and a gentleman approached us, offering to cross us,” Mendoza recalled.
The man could arrange for safe passage to the United States and a job in agriculture for $9,000 apiece.
“He said the money could be deposited once we started to work,” Mendoza said.
At least twice the coyote called, met them at their hotel and escorted them to the wall, where he helped them climb up a rope ladder to the top and slide down a beam.
“After jumping, we walked under the light of the moon,” she said, “but Immigration caught us.” Agents processed them at a station and returned them in a matter of hours to Mexicali, where they awaited their next chance.
‘I know how dangerous it is’
Maynor Melendrez, a construction worker in New York, is still haunted by his border crossing in 2003, when he was locked up in Arizona with fellow Guatemalans after falling into the hands of coyotes who demanded ransom for their release. The stash house was raided by the police, who freed them. “I got lucky,” he said.
He had left behind his wife and two daughters. Although he and his wife later divorced, he said he had sent money for his two daughters. The younger one, Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona, sometimes broached the subject of making the trek to the United States, but Melendrez always objected.
“I didn’t want Yesenia to put herself in harm’s way; I know how dangerous it is,” said Melendrez, 49.
But early this year, his younger daughter, a 23-year-old law student, began receiving threats from gangs on her phone, according to Rudy Dominguez, her uncle in Brea, California. Fearing for her life, she and her mother, Verlyn Cardona, 47, made a hasty decision to seek safety in the United States.
In February, they left Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, on a 2,500-mile journey to Mexicali.
Another person who would eventually join them at the border was already living in Mexicali. Dueñas, 28, a father of three, had been working in a bakery and at a maquiladora, one of the factories that churn out goods for the U.S. market.
“During the pandemic, he became desperate because there was less work,” his wife, Sofia Castañeda Gonzalez, said, distraught during an interview in Mexicali.
He decided that driving for a ride-share company could be lucrative. The quickest way to earn money to afford a car was to work in the United States.
Perhaps the smugglers seized on that when they decided who was going to drive the Expedition through the barrier and out across the desert; Dueñas, according to the California Highway Patrol, was at the wheel.
A major smuggling operation
On March 1, the day before the planned crossing, José, the teenager, was taken to a remote ranch outside Mexicali, where coyotes assembled about 40 migrants. His cousin Luis stayed behind to cross another day.
The migrants were shepherded to an area near the Imperial Sand Dunes, a destination for off-road vehicle enthusiasts, where José was surprised to see a gap in the border barrier big enough for a vehicle to cross. “I was expecting to have to jump over the wall again,” he said.
The migrants were distributed between two vehicles, a red GMC Yukon and the Expedition; they charged across, only to get stuck in the sand.
“Everyone had to get out, and the men began pushing,” Mendoza recalled.
By the time José jumped back in, the Expedition seemed even more crowded than before. With nothing to cling to, he was kept upright by the bodies pressing against him. “No one talked; the driver told us to be quiet,” he said.
A few minutes later, the Yukon erupted in flames, prompting an alert to the Border Patrol, which dispatched agents to the scene.
By the time firefighters from Holtville, California, responded, agents had already extinguished the fire. “I figured it smoked up because of the weight of the passengers,” the local fire chief, Alex Silva, said in an interview.
Agents who scoured the area caught 19 Mexican passengers, none of them harmed, who had fled the Yukon and hid in the bushes.
As he was leaving the scene, Silva received a call about a collision at the intersection of state Route 115 and Norrish Road, 2 miles from Holtville, his quaint hometown — the “carrot capital of the world,” which hosts an annual carrot festival.
What he encountered was the most gruesome accident he had seen in his 29-year career. Bodies were strewn on the road in every direction.
“People had exploded out of the vehicle and landed 40 feet away,” he said. “A few were moving around on the roadway moaning.”
He spotted a woman holding a younger person, pleading for help in Spanish. He believes it was Cardona and her daughter, Melendrez, the law student.
“She was brushing her daughter’s hair and trying to wipe the blood off her face. I just looked at her daughter and could tell she had passed,” he recalled.
As he sized up the wreckage, he saw only the truck and the Expedition. “I was thinking, where is the third or fourth vehicle? How could this many bodies have been in one SUV?”
Inside the vehicle, there were people still alive, draped over the dead. Silva knew it would take helicopters to ferry the victims to hospitals all over the region.
“I ordered every ambulance and airship I could get,” he said.
Twelve people were declared dead at the scene, including Melendrez, Dueñas and Mendoza’s cousin, Garcia. Thirteen were transferred to hospitals, where one died; the driver of the rig, which had been pulling two empty containers, sustained moderate injuries.
Broken families in the aftermath
Hours after the crash, Melendrez, in New York, received a call from his former brother-in-law about his daughter, who was dead, and his ex-wife, who had sustained a cerebral hemorrhage. His daughter, he said, had decided to make the trip without telling him.
“I knew nothing about their plan to come here,” he said. Since leaving Guatemala when she was 6, he had seen his daughter blossom into a beautiful woman only in photographs.
“After all these years, I am going to see her cadaver,” he said.
In Mexicali, Castañeda, the driver’s wife, learned about the crash on social media. She frantically called her husband but got no response. He was found dead in the driver’s seat.
Mendoza woke up at the hospital connected to machines and with searing pain in her chest, which had been crushed, and her right leg, which was shattered below the knee.
“The nurses told me I had been in an accident,” she said. “I couldn’t remember anything.”
Mendoza was discharged March 7 with a walker and joined relatives in Watsonville, California. It could be months before she is healthy enough to work again.
Mexico’s consul-general in San Diego, Carlos González Gutiérrez, said the surviving passengers were likely to be allowed to remain in the United States if they cooperate with the investigation and meet other conditions.
“I hope my mother can stay there,” Mendoza’s daughter, Matilde, 16, said in a phone interview from Guatemala. “She went to work for us. She wanted to give us something better.”
In Guerrero, José’s mother, Felix, worried that she had not heard from her son since March 1, when he had called to inform her that he would be attempting to cross early the next day.
She called the Mexican consulate’s 24-hour hotline and learned that her son was unconscious and on a ventilator. He had fractures to his spine, pelvis, ribs and a foot, a lacerated spleen and a cerebral hemorrhage. Consular officials helped her secure a special visa to enter the United States, and she flew to Tijuana, Mexico, with her younger son, Santiago, 11.
“I hoped to get there in time to say goodbye to my dying son,” she recalled.
At Scripps Mercy Hospital on March 5, she found José awake but broken. He was barely able to lift his head, and with months of recovery ahead, she wondered if he would ever again be the strong young man who had left her home.
But he was alive.
“He whispered, ‘Mama, you have come,’” she recalled. “I cried with joy.”
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