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Deaths of 6 Reignite Border Debate

June 26, 2002|TONY PERRY and LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PINE VALLEY, Calif. — Authorities on Tuesday were calling an accident that killed six people and injured 16 one of the most horrific collisions arising from the daily struggle of illegal immigrants trying to evade the U.S. Border Patrol.

Five suspected illegal immigrants and a 50-year-old male citizen from Albuquerque were killed instantly about 9 p.m. Monday when a "load van" stuffed with 33 people struck four oncoming vehicles on Interstate 8 about 50 miles east of downtown San Diego.

The collision immediately rekindled debate about immigrant smuggling and whether U.S. border policy is contributing to the death toll as immigrants resort to ever riskier routes and stratagems to enter the country.

Although vehicle accidents account for only a small fraction of the overall death toll, the number of immigrants dying in their attempt to reach the United States has increased sharply in recent years as the federal government has tightened its control over less-risky routes near the San Ysidro border crossing.

Moments before Monday's accident, the van was speeding west in the eastbound lanes with headlights off in an apparent attempt to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint, California Highway Patrol officials said.

Having looped around the checkpoint, the driver may have been trying to return to the westbound lanes when disaster stuck.

The 1994 Dodge van--designed to accommodate only 15 passengers--first sideswiped a 1989 Honda Prelude driven by Mary K. Miner, 29, of Boulevard, a community in eastern San Diego County, and a 1996 Honda Accord driven by Sarah J. Kay, 20, of Santa Cruz. Neither woman suffered serious injuries.

Then the van slammed head-on into a 1993 Ford Explorer driven by Larry S. Baca, 50, of Albuquerque. The Explorer became airborne, jumped a guardrail and tumbled down a sharp embankment, landing upside down. Baca was killed instantly.

Finally, the van hit another vehicle head-on--a 1989 Toyota van driven by Maria F. Amaya, 45, of Boulevard. She was hospitalized in serious condition. There were no skid marks on the pavement, suggesting that the crashes occurred too fast for the drivers to react along the dark stretch of highway, two lanes in each direction separated by a wide planted median.

Thirty-one people were taken to eight San Diego area hospitals. Sixteen continued to receive treatment Tuesday; three were in critical condition. Those from the Dodge van who were treated and released were taken into custody by the Border Patrol.

None of the immigrants killed--four men and one woman--carried identification, which is hampering attempts by the county medical examiner to determine names and notify relatives. Their ages were estimated to range from 25 to 35.

Amaya and her 18-year-old son were returning home after receiving treatment for injuries caused by an earlier traffic accident, according to Eileen Cornish, spokeswoman for Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. Amaya, the last to be struck, had tried to swerve but did not have time to miss the Dodge van, Cornish added.

CHP investigators believe that the driver of the Dodge van--who was among the dead--had used an emergency turnout to cross from the westbound to eastbound lanes about a mile east of the Border Patrol checkpoint. The collision occurred about a mile west of the checkpoint.

Tangled cars and bodies were strewn across both eastbound lanes, shutting the freeway for hours. Emergency vehicles returning from a brush fire in the back country were diverted to help with the injured.

On Tuesday, shards of glass, twisted metal and a scattering of personal papers, music cassettes and picnic ware were all that remained at the scene. Baca's Explorer had been removed but a T-shirt sealed in a plastic bag, a golf club and one white tennis shoe remained where the sport utility vehicle had come to rest.

Standing at the entrance to Sharp Memorial, where three Mexican citizens were being treated, a Mexican consular official laid much of the blame for the accident on smugglers. Most of the immigrants were from Mexico, some from Brazil and others from Central America, officials said.

The migrants "are trying to come across the border looking for opportunity," said Juan Carlos Sanchez. "But it's the smugglers who are definitely putting people at risk of dying. It's organized business. Those people are just merchandise to them."

But Claudia Smith, director of the border project of the Oceanside-based office of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the U.S. crackdown on the border, dubbed Operation Gatekeeper, also shares the blame by forcing immigrants away from easier and safer routes.

"These deaths are entirely foreseeable," she said. "We're sitting on the border of hypocrisy. We have made smugglers indispensable. What do you expect? People are going to continue to come here, and the smugglers are the only way to get across."

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