HOLTVILLE, Calif. (AP) — 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.
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.