HOLTVILLE, Calif. (KABC) -- It was a desperate attempt to save the lives of her children, but with heartache in her eyes and voice, Verlyn Cardona faces her tragic reality. Her daughter Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona is gone.
The mother and daughter were among 24 passengers in an SUV federal investigators say were smuggled into the U.S. Tuesday. Half of them, and the driver, lost their lives when a tractor trailer broadsided the Ford Expedition in Imperial County, California Highway Patrol investigators say.
Yesenia, 23, was among the dead.
Verlyn says her journey with her daughter from their hometown in Guatemala began on Feb. 2.
The death threats, gang violence and no help from local law enforcement, was already too much for the family.
But a recent increase in disappearances of young university women who have turned up dead was where the single mother said enough.
They fled, telling no one. Their house left abandoned.
Verlyn's son went first. He had a visa.
The mother and daughter made it to the U.S.-Mexico border. After waiting all night in the cold dark, they were told to go into the Ford Expedition.
People kept entering the vehicle. More than two dozen people packed into a car with a capacity for eight.
Verlyn remembers the yelling. "Please, we can't take it, there are too many people," she recalls hearing.
She says someone closed the door and the SUV was off.
Verlyn saw her daughter crammed in, further toward the outside. Unable to breathe, Verlyn thinks she passed out.
When she woke up, Yesenia was on her lap, people scattered everywhere. She touched her daughter's face, checked her pulse, spoke to her, but there was no response.
Yesenia's lips were blue. Verlyn realized her daughter was gone.
Yesenia had dreams and was in her fourth year of law school. She was full of life, friendly and a bright student.
Yesenia's death leaves mother devastated.
"My heart is broken," Verlyn says in Spanish as she wipes away tears.