Holtville Fire Chief Alex Silva was first on the scene as the sun began to rise over Imperial Valley on the morning of March 2. Immediately, he noticed an overwhelming number of bodies.
“It’s something I’ve never seen in my entire life,” said Silva. “In my career.”
A gravel truck jack-knifed a Ford Expedition holding 25 people, the majority Mexican and Guatemalan migrants. Thirteen people died.
At the time, as Silva was working through the incident, the crash site was silent.
“But when I got home that night, I could definitely hear the cries, and the moans and the people asking for help," Silva said.
Now, he makes an effort to avoid driving past the location of the accident where there are too many still-fresh memories. The most difficult one, he says, is that of Yerlin Cardona, who wouldn’t let go of her 23-year-old daughter Yesenia.
“She was holding her daughter on the street,” says Silva. “And brushing her hair, her blood-soaked face, and just caressing her, and asking us to help her.”
But they couldn’t help her. She was already dead.
“It was devastating,” said Silva.
Customs and Border Patrol released this photo of a breached border fence, which the agency says is where the SUV carrying the victims, illegally crossed into the U.S.
The breach is far from unique.
Between January 2019 and October 2020, border patrol agents reported 969 breaches, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection records on reported breaches obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Those breaches occurred in both old and new portions of the border fence. Notes include descriptions like, “Bollard cut all the way," "Bars are bent enough to fit bodies through," "Tools torch and cutting equipment visible on the south side of the fence."
Two years ago, NBC News exclusively reported that it was possible to completely sever through the steel prototype favored by the Trump administration.
In video shared with NBC 7 Investigates, a Homeland Security construction supervisor tells photographer and filmmaker John Kurc his crew has patched 35 border breaches in just the last week.
“I’ve driven well over 1,000 miles along the border,” says Kurc.
While photographing and filming along the border for months, Kurc says he has seen those that saw through the bollards, reattach the fence and even use paint to conceal where they’ve cut through.
“So it could be weeks,” says Kurc. “Months, maybe even a year before these sections are discovered by customs Border Patrol.”
Another video shows how some smugglers don’t even use a saw, opting instead for makeshift ladders like these that Kurc captured, discovered by border patrol. Other times, Kurc says people just walk around where the fence ends.
“It’s laughable how easy it is,” says Kurc. “Literally [the federal government] have created avenues that make it easier for migrants and drug traffickers and what other nefarious activity that want to come over. These walls will never stop people who want to come over. It’s a vanity project gone wrong.”
A Customs and Border Patrol spokesman turned down our request for an interview, but sent NBC 7 Investigates a statement reading in part:
“Since April 2020, CBP has seen an increase in border encounters from the Western Hemisphere due to worsening economic conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters impacting the area.”
“I would be careful in reading into it too much,” says David Kyle, a UC Davis sociology professor who specializes in migrant smuggling.
He says it’s too early to say why we’re seeing an uptick of human trafficking at the border.
“One of the things we know about migration in general,” says Kyle. “And especially migrant smuggling, has is that there is never one factor.”
What is clear, says Kyle, is what isn’t the solution.
“This is a symptom of a bigger problem that a border wall will not fix,” says Kyle.
According to Customs Border Patrol documents released in a FOIA request to the Washington Post, agents reported 18 border wall breaches in the San Diego area in one month alone in 2019. Five incidents occurred within the same day.