A truck slammed into an S.U.V. crowded with 25 people in an agricultural region where migrant smuggling is common.
LOS ANGELES — At least 13 people were killed early Tuesday in what appeared to be one of the deadliest border-related crashes in recent decades, as a big rig slammed into an S.U.V. crammed with more than two dozen people.
The crash occurred just after sunrise on the outskirts of Holtville, Calif., in the Imperial Valley, a rich agricultural region and a busy corridor for migrant smuggling.
The impact threw passengers from the vehicle, a maroon Ford Expedition, the police said. Twelve were killed on the spot, and a 13th died in a nearby hospital, where several other passengers were also treated for injuries.
“Just thinking about it makes you sick to the stomach,” said Michael Kelley, the chairman of Imperial County’s board of supervisors, adding that the area where the crash occurred was heavily traveled by farmworkers who cross the border to work in the local fields.
Officer Arturo Platero of the California Highway Patrol said the driver of the S.U.V., who was killed, was from Mexicali, Mexico, which is about 20 miles south of Holtville. The authorities did not identify any of the other victims or confirm whether they had crossed the border, but said they were working with the Mexican consular officials to try to identify passengers.
The crash occurred on State Route 115 when the driver of the S.U.V. pulled into the path of the tractor-trailer, which struck the driver’s side, said Omar Watson, the chief of the California Highway Patrol’s border division, at a news conference. Officials had previously said the tractor-trailer was carrying gravel, but Officer Platero said on Tuesday evening that it had been hauling two empty containers.
There were 25 people inside the S.U.V., Chief Watson said. “Some people were ejected onto the pavement, onto the ground, and passed away,” he said. “Other people were found deceased inside.”
The dead ranged in ages from 20 to 55, Chief Watson said, and at least one of the injured passengers was as young as 16; the oldest was 65. He said law enforcement agencies had not been chasing the vehicle involved in the crash.
“We’re not sure exactly what caused the collision,” he said. “Obviously, that vehicle is not meant for that many people.”
Dr. Adolphe Edward, the chief executive of the El Centro Regional Medical Center, where seven victims were treated, including one who died, said in an interview that he believed that the passengers were undocumented migrants.
Smugglers often transport large numbers of migrants in vans or S.U.V.s through the region after meeting them in remote areas once they have managed to enter the United States. Car wrecks near the border are common, but Dr. Edward said there had been fewer during the coronavirus pandemic.
Seven people died after a car fleeing the U.S. Border Patrol crashed in downtown El Paso in June last year, the deadliest such accident there in recent memory, the authorities said at the time.
In 2019, six people were killed when a vehicle packed with undocumented migrants crashed in rural South Texas after it was chased by the police and veered into a ditch. Five people were charged in connection with the migrant-smuggling scheme that resulted in that accident, including the driver.
And in July 2012, in one of the worst border-related crashes of the last decade, a Ford pickup crammed with more than 20 undocumented adults and children struck two trees, killing 15 migrants, in Texas. The youngest fatality was a girl about 8 years old.
The Imperial Valley is the heart of a region where lettuce, leafy greens and melons flourish in the arid climate for several months of the year. Holtville, where fewer than 7,000 people live, calls itself the “carrot capital of the world.” During the harvest, which peaks in the winter, some 6,000 farmworkers legally cross the border each day to work in fields. Most travel in their own vehicles or cross on foot, and are met by vans or buses.
Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, whose legislative district includes the scene of the crash, said the tragedy was just the latest sign of the ways in which people in the area, and across the border with Mexico, were struggling.
“How we prevent an accident like the one today is clearly by improving the quality of life for folks, so that they’re not having to travel in a vehicle with 20-plus people in it,” Mr. Garcia said in an interview.
Even before the pandemic, he said, the region’s unemployment rate was as much as four times the state average.
“The same people that we are relying on and counting on to make sure that our food supply is met, these are the same folks that probably lost their life today,” he said.
Arrests of unauthorized immigrants, considered a key indicator of illegal border crossings, have been steadily climbing in recent months. In April 2020, early in the Covid-19 pandemic, the Border Patrol apprehended only 17,106 people. Last month, agents intercepted 78,323, compared with 36,585 in January last year.
About 800 Border Patrol agents work in the vast El Centro Sector, which runs about 70 miles across the valley. Former President Donald J. Trump visited the area to tout a new border barrier — a row of 30-foot-tall, slender steel slats with pointed edges. That has created more business for smugglers who are hired for thousands of dollars to guide migrants through rugged terrain to reach the United States.
During the pandemic, the El Centro hospital, which has a 20-bed intensive-care unit, has been overwhelmed with ailing local residents, as well as Americans and U.S. green card holders fleeing overcrowded clinics and hospitals in Mexicali, a city of 1.1 million on the other side of the border. El Centro, the largest city on the U.S. side, has a population of about 45,000.
Macario Mora, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in Yuma and El Centro, said the agency was assisting other law enforcement officials with the investigation of Tuesday’s crash. He said the immigration status of those in the vehicle was unknown and was still under investigation by the California Highway Patrol.
Miriam Jordan reported from Los Angeles, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York. Christine Hauser contributed reporting from Haymarket, Va., and Sarah Bahr from Indianapolis. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.