The deaths of nine people on Monday in the crash of a sport utility vehicle (SUV) fleeing the Border Patrol is evidence of the growing practice of smugglers packing as many people as they can into vehicles and driving recklessly to avoid capture.
With federal agents flooding traditional smuggling routes and thousands of National Guard troops now helping out, smugglers have sought to get the most people over the border in the quickest of ways. That often means cramming people into vehicles, usually vans and SUVs, in which people have been found under seats and the dashboard and, in larger vehicles, hidden in the gas tank.
The Yuma County Sheriff's Department said Tuesday that the three men and six women killed were among 21 Mexicans "stacked like cordwood" in a Chevrolet Suburban whose driver lost control after crossing a spike strip laid down by Border Patrol agents.
Twelve people were injured, including five critically. The driver had made a U-turn apparently to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint, sped as fast as 129kph and crashed shortly after driving over the spikes on a state highway 48km north of Yuma, said Major Leon Wilmot of the sheriff's department.
The driver, Adan Pineda, 20, was charged on Tuesday with transporting illegal immigrants, and Wilmot said he might face additional charges when the investigation was complete.
Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network in Tucson, Arizona, an advocacy group, said escalating deaths and the spate of crashes showed that the crackdown on the border had deadly consequences that policymakers in Washington often ignored. Allen questioned the use of the spike strip, which Border Patrol officials said appeared to have been properly deployed and generally causes vehicles to slow to a stop.
"The practices are lethal," Allen said. "It should not be a death sentence to flee the Border Patrol."
The Border Patrol said it began seeing a surge in vehicle deaths in 2003, the start of a major push in border enforcement. Deaths in motor vehicle accidents jumped to 40 that year from 22 the previous year.
Since October, the start of the government's fiscal year, there have been 42 deaths in accidents during illegal crossings at the Mexican border, already more than the 36 recorded last year.
"You are seeing smuggling organizations and the people who put their hands in smuggling organizations with a total disregard for human life," said Mario Martinez, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Washington.
The vehicles either crossed the border in rough terrain or picked up people who had already crossed at arranged places in the field or in safe houses, Martinez said.
Police said the crashes often involved smugglers desperate not to get caught.