PENITAS, Texas – A pickup truck crammed with suspected illegal immigrants collided with an SUV near the Mexican border, killing three people and injuring 14 others.
Police said there were at least 20 people in the truck when it crashed before dawn Thursday on U.S. Highway 83, the main east-west artery along the border in the Rio Grande Valley.
"There were bodies all over the place," said Penitas interim Police Chief David Harris.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said three illegal immigrants were in custody.
Pruneda said 14 others were being treated for a variety of head and back injuries in five area hospitals; one was believed to be paralyzed.
The majority of those found are believed to be Mexican nationals. Pruneda said all were men except for one woman and a 15-year-old boy, who had extensive internal injuries.
Investigators were trying to determine if the driver was among those injured or if he escaped, Pruneda said.
Information was not immediately available on the condition of the other driver. Department of Public Safety troopers were investigating the cause of the accident.
Some of the survivors told police they had been hurried into the back of the truck and had not gone far before the accident. "I think they had paid a fee" to be smuggled across the border, Harris said.
Blood stained the grass at the scene, which happened to be in front of L&I Funeral Home. The gold pickup came to rest against a telephone pole, just feet from the funeral home's display headstones.
The area is a major immigrant-smuggling corridor. Lately there had been an influx of immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, but most of those involved in Thursday's crash are believed to be Mexican, La Joya police spokesman Joe Cantu said.
The smugglers have little regard for the safety of their passengers. Accidents where immigrants are tossed from the open beds of pickups are not unusual, Cantu said.
Looking at the smashed pickup with an extended bed, Cantu estimated there could have been as many as 30 in it. "They get in — it's like sardines," he said.
The smugglers often escape when the groups are nabbed, Cantu said, adding, "These guys run like gazelles."