Federal authorities launch human smuggling investigation into deadly California crash

Federal authorities have launched a human smuggling investigation after Tuesday’s crash between a sport utility vehicle and gravel truck left 13 people dead and a dozen others injured just north of the California-Mexico border.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson told NBC News in an email Wednesday that special agents from the Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego are looking to see if the deadly crash involved a human smuggling operation.

“The investigation is ongoing and no further details are available at this time,” the official said.

The deadly crash occurred about 6:15 a.m. local time at an intersection just outside Holtville, better known as the world’s carrot capital, in Imperial County, about 11 miles north of the border, the California Highway Patrol said. The semitruck full of gravel hit a 1997 Ford Expedition carrying 25 people, according to the agency.

Authorities identified the semitruck driver as Joe Beltran, 68, of El Centro, California, who suffered major injuries and is being treated at Desert Regional Medical Center. The SUV driver, who authorities did not publicly name, was identified as a 28-year-old from Mexicali, which is south of where the crash occurred.

Ten of the dead, including the SUV driver, were Mexican nationals, while the nationalities of the other three have not yet been determined, the Mexican Consulate said in a statement. The victims were men and women between the ages of 15 to 53, according to Omar Watson, a border division chief with the highway patrol. No other details have been released.

Officials were still working with the Imperial County Coroner’s Office Tuesday afternoon to identify those killed and notify their families, he said. An update on those injured was not available Wednesday morning.

The only two seats in the SUV were the driver’s seat and the front right passenger seat, according to Watson. The vehicle is built to hold eight people safely. Numerous people were ejected from the SUV because there were not enough restraints for everyone inside the vehicle, Watson said.

“At this point, it’s unknown whether or not the Expedition stopped at the stop sign, but it did enter the intersection in front of the big rig,” he told reporters earlier Tuesday. “Subsequently the big rig collided with the left side of the Ford Expedition.”

It was not immediately clear how fast the vehicles were going. The highway patrol and the National Transportation Safety Board said they were conducting an investigation into the crash.

The deadly incident occurred amid verdant farms that grow a wide variety of vegetables and alfalfa used for cattle feed. Thousands of workers take buses and SUVs from downtown Calexico to the fields during the winter harvest, according to The Associated Press.

While it was unknown why so many people were crammed into SUV on Tuesday, smugglers have been known to pack people in extremely unsafe conditions to maximize profits.

Hundreds of people who have died after crossing the California-Mexico border are buried in unmarked graves in Holtville’s cemetery on the edge of town.

The Associated Press contributed.

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