HOLTVILLE, Calif. — The Ford Expedition was so heavy its wheels spun at first in the 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 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 tractor-trailer barreling down state Route 115.
Few of the survivors have been able to describe what happened next. Twelve people died on the spot, a 13th at a hospital.
José remembered none of it. “When I woke up, I was in the hospital,” he said, struggling to speak with 10 inches of surgical staples stretched down his stomach and more around his waist. Two days had passed by the time he regained consciousness.
The 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.
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 Customs and Border Protection. Thousands of children and families arriving daily from Central America, driven by violence, natural disasters and the pandemic, have flooded processing centers and created a humanitarian challenge on the border.
One 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 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 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 trip. The man, José Cruz Noguez, was charged with human smuggling that caused serious injury.
‘There Is No Future in Mexico’
José, the oldest of two boys raised in a 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.
“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. 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.
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, Mexico.
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 was a single mother who tried to provide for her three daughters by selling tamales and weaving hats. The pandemic had made eking out a living more difficult.
She stuffed some pesos and clothes in a backpack and boarded a bus to Mexicali with her cousin, Garcia.
Maynor Melendrez, 49, a construction worker in New York, crossed the border in 2003. 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.
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, decided 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 join them at the border was living in Mexicali: Dueñas, 28, a father of three. 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 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 saw a gap in the border barrier big enough for a vehicle to cross.
The migrants were distributed between two vehicles, a 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 more crowded than before.
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 extinguished the fire. Agents who scoured the area caught 19 Mexican passengers who had fled the Yukon and hid in the bushes.
As he was leaving the scene, the local fire chief, Alex Silva, received a call about a collision at the intersection of state Route 115 and Norrish Road, 2 miles from Holtville.
What he encountered was the most gruesome accident he had seen in his 29-year career. Twelve people were declared dead on 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.
Mendoza woke up at the hospital connected to machines and with pain in her chest, which had been crushed, and her right leg, which was shattered below the knee. She was discharged March 7 and joined relatives in Watsonville, California.
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.
“I hope my mother can stay there,” Mendoza’s daughter, Matilde, 16, said from Guatemala. “She went to work for us. She wanted to give us something better.”