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Guatemala Woman, 23, Is Among 13 Killed in California Crash

EL CENTRO, Calif. — One of the 13 people killed when the SUV smuggling them into California hit a tractor-trailer was a 23-year-old woman who was fleeing violence in Guatemala for the hope of a better life, family members said.

Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona had told her father she wanted to follow in his footsteps and go to the United States, where he had started a new life 15 years earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

"She couldn't reach the American dream," her father, Maynor Melendrez of New York, told the paper in Spanish. He arrived in California on Wednesday.

"There are no words," he said. "I couldn't see her again, I couldn't hug her."

Yesenia and her mother, 46-year-old Verlyn Cardona, were among 25 people packed into a 1997 Ford Expedition that drove through a hole cut in a border fence on Tuesday. The vehicle, with a smuggler at the wheel, was driving through California's agricultural Imperial Valley when it was broadsided at an intersection by a tractor-trailer hauling two empty trailers, authorities said.

Seventeen occupants were Mexican — 10 who died, including the driver, and seven who were injured. Nine migrants had major injuries, including two Guatemalans, authorities said.

The youngest injured was a 15-year-old girl whose name and nationality were undetermined, according to California Highway Patrol. She had major injuries. 

The oldest was Verlyn Cardona. The Guatemala City woman lost consciousness. When she came to in the back of the broken SUV, her daughter was sprawled dead across her legs, family members told the Times.

She was treated for a head injury that caused a cerebral hemorrhage and has been released from the hospital.

"She always tried to give her daughter a better life," said Yesenia's uncle, Rudy Dominguez. "Never imagining that the price she would pay would be this."

He and other family members described Yesenia as a loving woman who loved to play soccer and was like a big sister to Dominguez's teenage daughter.

Although Yesenia had a job and was studying to be a lawyer at a university, her hometown of Chiquimulilla was ravaged by unemployment as the coronavirus pandemic closed businesses, and some people took to crime, making the streets unsafe.

She was being harassed and threatened, said her uncle.

"It was an emergency decision," Dominguez said. "There they threaten you and they kill you."

Dominguez had left Guatemala 16 years ago, despite the risks of being kidnapped or left for dead in the desert by smugglers.

 "These are decisions you make, where you ask yourself, 'Do I die over there? Or do I die fighting for a dream?' " he said.

Yesenia and her mother left on Feb. 2 and traveled to Baja California, Mexico. They stayed about a week before beginning their final journey across the border.

The Border Patrol said surveillance video showed the Expedition and a Chevrolet Suburban drive through an opening in the border wall about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of the crash. The Suburban carried 19 people, and it caught fire for unknown reasons on a nearby interstate after entering the U.S. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by the Border Patrol, which said it was not pursuing either SUV.

The Expedition soon struck the tractor-trailer, whose driver, a 68-year-old man from El Centro, suffered major injuries.

Tekandi Paniagua, Guatemala's consul general in Los Angeles, told the Times that smugglers are encouraging the belief in Guatemala that the administration of new President Joe Biden is loosening immigration restrictions when in reality, "the politics haven't changed a lot."

Migrants still face an uncertain and dangerous crossing, he said.

"They don't know if they're going to go into a tractor-trailer, if they're going to hide in the false bottom of a bus, if they're going to hide in a truck with 25 people like what happened here," Paniagua said. "We're seeing the lives lost."

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