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Yesenia Cardona (left) and her mother, Verlyn Cardona, poses for a photo from their native Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, in a photo sent to Yesenia’s uncle and Verlyn’s brother, Rudy Dominguez. The 23-year-old Yesenia was killed and her 47-year-old mother, Verlyn, was injured in a tragic collision at the intersection of Highway 115 and Norrish Road northwest of Holtville on Tuesday morning, March 2, in which 13 people were killed. The mother and daughter were part of a vehicle with 25 occupants who entered the country illegally. | RUDY DOMINGUEZ PHOTO

Yesenia Cardona Left Home to Find Freedom, Yet Only Found Death

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When one of Guatemala’s ruthless street gangs promised to murder Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona in late January if she didn’t join their ranks, she and her mother, Verlyn Cardona, knew this was no idle threat.

The single mother had nearly lost her younger brother, Rudy Dominguez, to the brazen violence and lawlessness of a country reeling in the aftermath of a 36-year civil war that only ended in 1996.

For Verlyn Cardona, this was like life on repeat, when the same kind of criminal element that would put a bullet in Dominguez’s head some 16 years earlier, in 2005, was now demanding that her own daughter join or die.

Yesenia Cardona (right) and her mother, Verlyn Cardona, are shown in a photo from their native Chiquimulilla, Guatemala. | RUDY DOMINGUEZ PHOTO

“If they tell you they will kill you, they will kill you,” said Dominguez, who while speaking to this newspaper over the phone said he still bears the physical scars of that gunshot wound and the mental scars as well. “I came here 16 years ago because I was in that same situation.”  

The 47-year-old Verlyn had a visa for her 12-year-old son, Juan Pablo, and instantly sent him to California to stay with Tio Rudy, who was now living in Brea on a work visa himself.

“Because this happened to me before, she (Verlyn) got scared,” he explained. “They got out in an emergency … she thought that they would be safe here.”

The very next day, Feb. 2, 23-year-old Yesenia and her mother would leave their native Chiquimulilla, in the state of Santa Rosa, not far from the border with El Salvador, and travel some 2,500 miles north to enter the United States illegally.

Exactly one month later, on Tuesday, March 2, after spending 20 days waiting in Mexico to find passage north, Yesenia and Verlyn would make it across the border, yet Yesenia would go no farther north than the intersection of Highway 115 and Norrish Road a few miles northwest of Holtville.

There, Yesenia, along with 12 others, would meet their end in what authorities say is a human-smuggling attempt gone tragically wrong, when the Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle they were traveling in drove into the path of a Peterbilt tractor-trailer rig just after 6 a.m.

Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona of Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, was killed at age 23 when the vehicle she was traveling in was struck by a semi truck at the intersection of Highway 115 and Norrish Road outside Holtville on Tuesday, March 2. Yesenia and her mother, who was injured, entered the country illegally along with 23 other in a Ford Expedition. Twelve others died that day. | RUDY DOMINGUEZ PHOTO

Although there have been differing accounts of the reasons behind Yesenia and Verlyn’s journey to the United States, Rudy Dominguez said in an interview with this newspaper on Thursday afternoon, March 4, that freedom from the specter of death and the brutality wrought by street gangs in much of Central America was the deciding factor.

Specifically, in Guatemala City, where Yesenia worked and was a fourth-year student at Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in hopes of becoming an attorney, gangs and gang violence was particularly widespread. Some estimates say the city of 2.8 million is home to more than 50 gangs and roughly 10,000 gang members and triple the number of gang “sympathizers,” according to the country’s National Civil Police.

For Mexicali resident Jairo de Jesus Dueñas Landin, his reasons for coming to the United States were a bit different, and the story of his death could yet prove problematic.

After the 28-year-old baker was laid off from his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his wife, Sofia Amairan Castaneda Gonzalez, told the Calexico Chronicle/Holtville Tribune on Thursday that he wanted to earn some cash to buy a reliable car so that he could return to his family and work as an Uber driver.

Although the identity of the driver of the Expedition had not been released by the California Highway Patrol nor the Imperial County Coroner’s Office as of Thursday midday, a similar age and city of residence suggests that Dueñas might have been the man behind the wheel.

Father Ed Horning conducts a service and says prayers on Thursday evening, March 4, at the crash site where 13 people died and 12 more were severely injured on Tuesday morning, March 2, in what authorities say is a case of human smuggling. | PHOTO USED BY PERMISSON OF ISABEL SOLIS

Of the 10 Mexican nationals and three reported Guatemalans who died Tuesday — 12 at the crash site and one in El Centro Regional Medical Center — only Yesenia and Jairo have so far been publicly identified through media reports. Imperial County coroner officials were expected to release more information on the deceased on Friday, March 5, but Imperial County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Robert Benavidez said that information would not be coming Friday.

As of late Thursday, Benavidez said 12 of the 13 had been positively identified, mostly through DNA matches with family members. One was being considered a “John/Jane Doe.” And of the 12, only a couple of the decedents still had next of kin pending notification.

A Mother Loses Her Only Daughter

Verlyn Cardona’s loss was beyond tragic, said her little brother, 40-year-old Rudy.

“For my sister, I only want the best for her. With this, she will keep this moment till the end of her life … nothing is going to bring her daughter back,” Dominguez said.

After the SUV they were traveling in, which was crammed beyond capacity with 24 men and women and one brazen driver, took a direct hit to it left side, much of the human cargo was ejected onto the roadway.

Those injured ranged from a 15-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy to individuals in their mid-50s, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Wedged within the crushed wreckage of the Expedition, Verlyn blacked out, Rudy said, but he said she soon awoke to the wails of the other injured, and the lifeless limbs of her only daughter draped over her.

It’s not certain whether it was Verlyn cradling Yesenia’s body, but Holtville Fire Chief Alex Silva recalled in an interview Thursday of hearing what he described as the “heartbreaking” cries of a mother pleading with first responders to help her daughter.

Rudy Dominguez learned of the tragedy that had befallen his family when authorities contacted him to say his sister was in an accident and was being treated at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley.

In and out of consciousness due to a head injury that Dominguez would later learn was a cerebral hemorrhage, Verlyn spoke to him for about 30 seconds to tell him Yesenia had been killed.

Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona of Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, was killed at age 23 when the vehicle she was traveling in was struck by a semi truck at the intersection of Highway 115 and Norrish Road outside Holtville on Tuesday, March 2. Yesenia and her mother, who was injured, entered the country illegally along with 23 other in a Ford Expedition. Twelve others died that day. | RUDY DOMINGUEZ PHOTO

Dominguez said he didn’t believe his sister, he thought she was confused due to the head injury, and he spent the next few hours making phone calls to Imperial County hoping to learn that Verlyn was mistaken. He would learn she was not.

Verlyn and her brother, seven years her younger, were reunited after she was airlifted to Scripps Mercy Hospital in the Hillcrest area of San Diego.

As Rudy made the two-hour drive south from Brea, his and Verlyn’s middle sister, Brenda, age 44, flew in from Texas.

Late Wednesday afternoon, a severely injured Verlyn was released from Scripps, and Rudy took her home to Brea, where she and Yesenia planned to live once they reached the U.S.

Wracked with pain, unable to walk, or say much, Verlyn had her first opportunity to see 12-year-old Juan Pablo; neither could bring themselves to tell the boy about his older sister’s death at that point.

Sadly, Dominguez and Verlyn broke the news of Yesenia’s death to Juan Pablo on Thursday morning, and Rudy said the boy was beside himself with grief.

“It’s so sad. We couldn’t find the right words to tell him, that my niece, his sister, was dead,” Dominguez said. “When we told him today, he can’t stop crying for like an hour. We broke his heart.”

Is Jairo Dueñas the Deadly Driver?

Homeland Security Investigations out of San Diego reportedly opened a criminal human-trafficking probe into the March 2 collision the night of the accident, sending a specialized unit of investigators to the Holtville-area crash site, according to NBC7 media reports from the San Diego area.

This came several hours after Highway Patrol revealed the driver of the Ford Expedition, who himself was killed, was a 22-year-old Mexicali man. Later that afternoon, the CHP said the man was 28 years old, not 22.

The driver’s name was not released then, and it had yet to be released on Friday.

Mexicali resident Jairo de Jesus Dueñas Landin, 28 years old, was killed in the collision at Highway 115 and Norrish Road outside Holtville on Tuesday, March 2. While authorities have not identified the driver of the Ford Expedition responsible for causing the accident that killed 13 people, a suspected human-smuggling case, California Highway Patrol said the driver was 28 years old and a resident of Mexicali. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NBC/TELEMUNDO

Meanwhile, Jairo Dueñas’ wife, Sofia Amairan Castaneda Gonzalez, spoke to several members of the media, including this newspaper, to say her husband had intended to illegally cross into the United States and remain just long enough to save money to purchase a car so that he could start working as an Uber driver in Mexicali.

He was also motivated to cross by a desire to continue to provide for his three young children after recently being laid off from a bakery whose production slowed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said his wife.

Dueñas was in contact with Castaneda in the moments preceding his illegal crossing to provide details of the vehicle he was a passenger in so that if the vehicle appeared in any news reports she would become aware of his latest whereabouts, the 26-year-old Mexicali woman said during a telephone interview Thursday.

Castañeda said Dueñas had told her to expect a call from him once he had successfully arrived in the United States. By Tuesday afternoon, she still hadn’t heard from him, prompting her to repeatedly call his phone, but she said she was unable to reach him.

Ultimately, Castañeda called a relative of his who informed her that it appeared as though the vehicle he was traveling in was involved in the fatal collision near Holtville.

Dueñas reportedly was not carrying any identification on him, Castañeda said, making it even more difficult for the authorities to identify him and contact his next of kin.

She did not receive confirmation of his death until Wednesday, March 3, and was awaiting as of Thursday afternoon permission to visit the United States so that she could identify his body, which remains with the county Coroner’s Office.

The Telemundo/NBC reporter who first interviewed Castañeda, and who provided this newspaper with her contact information, called the woman on Friday morning to ask if Dueñas was in fact the driver responsible for the death of 12 people.

Castañeda reportedly told the journalist she did not know.

What We Know So Far

California Highway Patrol released the names of most of the injured in a press release Thursday afternoon with no additional details by Friday midday.

Several of the injured have been released from the handful of hospitals that span Imperial, Riverside, and San Diego counties.

Identified as being transported to University of San Diego Medical Center in San Diego from ECRMC with major injuries were Rene Zelando, a 30-year-old male from Nayarit, Mexico; Berti Orozco, a 21-year-old female from Guatemala City, Guatemala; 33-year-old Zeterina Mendoza, a woman from Guerrero, Mexico; and 44-year-old Camilio Rodriguez, a man from Santa Maria Del Oro, Mexico.

A makeshift memorial has been erected at the southeast corner of Highway 115 and Norrish Road outside of Holtville in connection to the fatal two-vehicle traffic collision that claimed the lives of a total of 13 individuals traveling in a sport-utility vehicle. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO

Those transported to Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest from Pioneers in Brawley were Jose Martinez, a 16-year-old male, from Guerrero, Mexico, and Verlyn Cardona, both of whom had major injuries, according to the Highway Patrol.

Cardona’s name was spelled Berlin by the CHP and she was listed as a resident of Guatemala City. However, her brother said her name is spelled incorrectly by the Highway Patrol, and he explained that she and Yesenia were both residents of Chiquimulilla, which is about 65 miles south of Guatemala City.

Dominguez explained that Yesenia went to school and worked in Guatemala City, but she and her mother lived in Chiquimulilla.

A 20-year-old female from Tapachula, Mexico, named Darlin Liliana Robledo was admitted to ECRMC with moderate injuries, and Avelardo Nava, an 18-year-old male from Guerrero, Mexico, and Manuel Rufino, a 39-year-old man, from Oaxaca, Mexico, were admitted to Pioneers in Brawley with moderate injuries, according to the Highway Patrol.

As of Thursday afternoon, the origin or citizenship of three patients transported to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs with major injuries were still unknown. They included 24-year-old Jorge Gutierrez Martinez and 22-year-old Esteban Montiel.

The identity and origin of the youngest occupant of the Expedition, a 15-year-old female airlifted to Desert Regional, was still unknown Thursday afternoon.

Highway Patrol added that the only person identified by their photo ID was Zeterina Mendoza. The rest stated their names.

A U.S. Border Patrol spokesperson told this newspaper on Thursday morning that the agency was intending to release a video statement regarding the fatal collision, but according to a Telemundo reporter, El Centro Sector officials had scrapped the idea and had no plans to comment on the situation further.

Presumably, the video statement was to provide follow-up information to the El Centro Sector’s press release on March 3 confirming that the Expedition had entered the United States through a 10-foot breach in the steel border fence near the Gordon’s Well exit/Schneider’s Bridge area just off Interstate 8 about 30 miles east of the Highway 115/Interstate 8 interchange.

Photos released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows the 10-foot breach in the border fence where two SUVs entered the country on Tuesday morning, March 2. One of the SUVs was a Ford Expedition that crashed outside Holtville, killing 13 people and injuring 12 others. | CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION PHOTOS

After a California Highway Patrol officer late Tuesday night, March 2, confirmed to this newspaper that Border Patrol had told him that two SUVs had entered the country through the fence breach east of Drop 4 by the All-American Canal, El Centro Sector issued its official statement along with photographs of the breach.

Sometime before 6 a.m., according to the timeline established on the Highway Patrol’s traffic incident page, a red Chevy Suburban that had entered through the breach caught on fire south of Interstate 8 east of Vanderlinden Road south of Holtville.

As CHP and Border Patrol responded to that scene, reports started to come in that the fatal collision involving the Expedition, which El Centro Sector later confirmed came through the breach, had occurred on 115 and Norrish.

The Next Leg of Yesenia’s Journey

The journey that Rudy Dominguez had to make in the immediate 24 to 36 hours after learning of his niece’s tragic death and his eldest sister’s devastating loss pales in comparison to miles traveled by Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona, prior to her demise and what’s to come next.

Dominguez made the two-hour trip from his home in Brea to Scripps on Tuesday to visit Verlyn, returned home, and the left Orange County at 2 a.m. Wednesday to arrive at the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office at 5:30 a.m. that same morning.

Yesenia Cardona (right), 23, of Guatemala, who died in a tragic vehicle collision with 12 other people on Tuesday, March 2, poses for a photo with her little brother, Juan Pablo, now 12. | RUDY DOMINGUEZ PHOTO

He had to wait for someone from the Coroner’s Office to let him in, where they took his DNA sample to confirm his relationship with and the identity of Yesenia, Dominguez said.

Once he identified her remains, Dominguez left Imperial County and returned to Scripps, where he stayed with his sister until she was released, and they returned to Brea.

Now, Dominguez said, he is tasked with taking possession of Yesenia’s remains and helping to raise the necessary funds from friends and family to return her to Chiquimulilla to be buried alongside family members in Cementario Chiquimulilla.

An autopsy and the release of Yesenia’s remains won’t happen any time before Wednesday, March 10, and Friday, March 12, Dominguez said. Even then, Yesenia will make that trip without her mother, brother, and uncle, whose immigration status won’t allow them to return home for a funeral.

Verlyn, the sole family member in the U.S. without documentation, has retained an immigration attorney to fight to stay in the states, Rudy said.

Next, the last leg of Yesenia’s journey will be with Verlyn and Rudy’s sister, Brenda, who is a permanent resident of the United States and the only family member allowed to travel to Guatemala, he said.

“It was her dream to come to U.S. someday to live with us,” her uncle said. “Now we have to take her home to Guatemala, to bury her. It’s so sad.”

On Monday, March 8, Dominguez said there will be a state-side funeral for Yesenia in about three weeks in Santa Ana, in Orange County.

The family has established a GoFundMe account to help pay for the costs to transport Yesenia’s remains the 2,500 miles home. The site can be found here: https://bit.ly/2NY1IFn