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Questions raised after 13 people killed in Imperial County crash

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Posted at 5:05 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 11:44:50-05

HOLTVILLE, Calif. (KGTV) - Human smuggling is suspected in the crash that killed more than a dozen people in Imperial County.

A local immigrants' rights group told ABC 10News that they question border agents' statement that there wasn't a pursuit of the SUV. Activists with Alliance San Diego are calling on members of the public to come forward if they saw anything leading up to the collision that killed 13 people and injured 12 others on Tuesday.

"Lives were lost. It was a tremendous tragedy," said Alliance San Diego's Executive Director Andrea Guererro.

She added that although border agents deny any involvement in what led to the crash, there are still questions about whether there was a chase.

"Border Patrol's word is not enough," Guererro added.

Border agents confirmed on Thursday that they were not in pursuit of the SUV.

"We are hearing community concerns that the version of events that Border Patrol has shared are not actually what happened, but we don't have any confirmed reports to share at this time," said Guererro.

Officials report that the victims were migrants being smuggled across the border and that the SUV had been stripped of nearly all its seats. A total of 25 people were inside the SUV when it was struck by a big rig.

Those killed have yet to be identified publicly. The 12 injured were identified by CHP on Thursday as:

  • Rene Zelando, 30-year-old male, of Nayarit, Mexico
  • Berti Orozco, 21-year-old female, of Guatemala City, Guatemala
  • Zeterina Mendoza, 33-year-old female, of Guerrero, Mexico
  • Camilio Rodriguez, 44-year-old male, of Santa Maria Del Oro, Mexico
  • Jose Martinez, 16-year-old male, of Guerrero, Mexico
  • Berlin Cardona, 46-year-old female, of Guatemala City, Guatemala
  • Darlin Liliana Robledo, 20-year-old female, of Tapachula, Mexico
  • Avelardo Nava, 18-year-old male, of Guerrero, Mexico
  • Manuel Rufino, 39-year-old male, of Oaxaca, Mexico
  • Jorge Gutierrez Martinez, 24-year-old male
  • Esteban Montiel, 22-year-old male
  • Jane Doe, 15-year-old female

Zelando, Orozco, Mendoza, and Rodriguez are currently being treated at UC San Diego Medical Center. They have what are described as “major injuries.”

Martinez and Cardona are receiving treatment at Scripps Mercy Hospital; their injuries are considered major.

Robledo’s injuries are moderate, CHP officials said. She is at El Centro Regional Medical Center in El Centro.

Nava and Rufino are patients at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley for treatment of moderate injuries.

Gutierrez Martinez, Montiel, and the 15-year-old girl all have major injuries and are at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, the CHP said.

Investigators say that the SUV was one of two seen on surveillance video going through a hole in the border fence that morning. The other SUV reportedly caught fire but those who were inside of it made it out safely and were detained.

Last week, border agents said that a driver sped off and collided with a Border Patrol vehicle during a human smuggling attempt in Jamul. A total of 10 Mexican nationals were reportedly found in the SUV.

Additionally, last week border agents said that a RAV4 struck a median while the driver was fleeing from agents and those agents later arrested 14 undocumented immigrants during a reported human smuggling attempt.

A spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol said on Thursday that its officers are still investigating how Tuesday's crash happened.

Part of a statement on Wednesday from El Centro Sector Chief Patrol Agent Gregory Bovino reads, "Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life. 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."

A press release from Alliance San Diego reads in part, "If you or someone you know has direct information regarding the crash in Imperial County on Tuesday March 2, 2021, please call (619) 629-0362 or (619) 233-4114."

ABC 10News asked border agents for a response about their involvement in chases and for updated numbers on human smuggling attempts. We are waiting to hear back.