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Federal authorities launch human smuggling investigation after deadly California crash

Ten of the 13 people who were killed were Mexican nationals, officials said.
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Federal authorities have launched a human smuggling investigation after Tuesday's crash between a sport utility vehicle and a gravel truck left 13 people dead and a dozen others injured just north of the California-Mexico border.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson said by email Wednesday that special agents from the Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego are looking to see whether the crash involved a human smuggling operation.

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

The vehicles collided at about 6:15 a.m. PT 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, the agency said.

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

Ten of the dead, including the SUV driver, were Mexican nationals, the Mexican Consulate said in a statement; the nationalities of the three others have not been determined. The occupants were men and women ages 15 to 53, said 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 on Tuesday afternoon to identify those who were killed and notify their families, he said. An update on those who were injured was not available Wednesday morning.

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

The vehicles collided 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.

Smugglers have been known to pack people in extremely unsafe conditions to maximize profits; hundreds who have died after crossing the border are buried in unmarked graves in Holtville's cemetery on the edge of town.