YUMA, Ariz. – Authorities filed charges Tuesday against a man believed to be behind the wheel during a rollover crash that killed nine illegal immigrants and injured a dozen more.
Survivors of the crash claimed the driver was 20-year-old Adan Pineda of Mexico. He was in federal custody and charged with one count of transporting illegal aliens, said Russell Ahr, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Ahr said the investigation will determine whether more charges are warranted.
The sport utility vehicle was carrying 21 people when the driver tried to circumvent a checkpoint on a highway more than 30 miles north of Yuma, authorities said. With Border Patrol agents in pursuit, the driver attempted to make a U-turn and the SUV rolled over.
Five of the injured, including a pregnant woman, were hospitalized in critical condition in Phoenix, most with head trauma. Investigators said the passengers were likely stacked inside the SUV at the time of the accident.
Miguel Escobar Valdez, the Mexican consul in Yuma, said the accident was "a very lamentable circumstance, and points out the greediness and lack of moral conscience" of immigrant smugglers.
Escobar said his office had identified most of the victims but would not release their names until families were notified. He said they came from various areas of Mexico, including Mexico City, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Puebla.
Before Monday's accident, 42 immigrants had died in vehicle accidents over the last 10 months nationwide while making border crossing attempts, a 16 percent rise from this time last year, the Border Patrol said. Motor vehicle accidents now rank as the fourth-leading known cause of death during border crossings.
"It's a steady source of border deaths — not a major one, but one that continues," said Nestor Rodriguez, director of the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research, which has studied immigrant deaths since 1995.
As the government has put more agents and surveillance technology at the border in recent years, smugglers are turning to more remote areas, where their drivers are unfamiliar with the rugged terrain and can overturn vehicles with a sharp turn.
Smugglers frustrated with losing money in failed crossings also lead authorities on chases, either to avoid capture or slip away long enough to exit the vehicle so they can blend in with their customers and thus avoid a human trafficking prosecution.
"They are willing to drive 90 mph down the highway and hope the Border Patrol drops away," said Raymond Cobos, undersheriff for Luna County, N.M., which is part of that state's busiest immigrant smuggling corridor.