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13 farm workers die in van crash

A van loaded with farm workers driven by an unlicensed driver slammed into a semitrailer truck on a remote road in the early-morning darkness Monday, killing 13 people and renewing worries about the safety of laborers who often cram into vehicles to get to work in the fields.

The 1983 Dodge Ram van smashed like an accordion on impact. Most of the 10 men and five women in the van were sitting without seat belts on two carpeted benches installed on each side, said California Highway Patrol Officer Brian Yokley.

It is illegal in California to have anyone ride without proper seats and seat belts, but certified farm vehicles are excluded from the law. The van received its last annual certification in 1997 but had not been certified since, the highway patrol said.

The van's driver was among those killed. Two other passengers were injured. Authorities did not identify them.

The driver didn't have a license and his driving privileges had been revoked because of several violations, said CHP Officer Eric Erickson. The driver, from Fresno, had been cited for not wearing a seat belt and not having a license and was once arrested on drunken driving charges. Erickson said there was no conviction for the DUI, but it wasn't clear why.

The truck driver, Adrian Menjivan, wasn't injured. Menjivan has a clean driving record. He was turning his rig around on the two-lane road after parking on the shoulder to sleep, Erickson said. The rig's two trailers were empty.

The van couldn't avoid hitting the truck. "Their brakes locked up," Erickson said.

It was not clear how fast the van was traveling. The accident happened shortly after 5 a.m., just southeast of Five Points in Fresno County. The laborers had just gotten off work at 4:30 a.m., sorting tomatoes in the fields, Erickson said.

In central California's agricultural heartland, farm workers are often transported in crowded vans _ a problem that has contributed to a disproportionate traffic death rate among Hispanics in the area.

The highway patrol has formed a team that focuses on vehicles crowded with farm workers.

Six officers, dubbed Los Centinales, or the Sentinels, have spent the past three summers patrolling before dawn, stopping trucks and vans of farm workers to check whether the vehicles are complying with state codes.

"We stop those vehicles that are obviously overloaded .

.

. the back end is sagged down because of the weight of the people," said Sgt. Jorge Chaidez, who runs the unit out of the highway patrol's office in Fresno. "I've seen up to 22 people in a small van."

Dona Portillo, 26, said the van involved in Monday's crash was owned by her grandfather, Jose Lopez Rosas. He was not in the van, but she said her father was among those killed.

"My friend gave me a ride, and my mom. Otherwise, she would have been in there, too," said a sobbing Portillo.

Yolanda Cervantes, who organizes an annual driver safety-awareness program in nearby Mendota, said most farm workers have no choice but to ride in crowded vans.

"Something has to change because every time you see these you don't have one death, you have multiple deaths," she said. "I've seen too many."

_ Information from Scripps Howard News Service was used in this report.

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