A heartbreaking photo shows an 11 year-old migrant girl carrying her three year-old brother through the desert hours before she and her mom died of heat exposure after crossing the US border from Mexico.
Maria Jose Sanchez was snapped by her mother Claudia Marcela Pena toting toddler brother Cristian David Morales on August 26, shortly before the mother and daughter’s tragic deaths after they got lost in the searing heat of the Sonora Desert near Yuma in Arizona.
Pena made a frantic call to 911 in Sonora, Mexico, after crossing into the US with a ‘coyote’ people smuggler who then abandoned the family, and pleaded: ‘Please help me.’
Asked by the operator how many people were with her, she added: ‘Two children. Please help me. I am going to faint.’
In the background, Maria can be heard telling her, ‘Mommy, I am hungry.’ Pena could be heard trying to calm her daughter by answering: ‘Soon, my love.’
The dispatcher asked Pena to send her her location using the WhatsApp messaging service, but Pena’s phone went dead before she could do so.
That saw the agency’s Air and Marine Operations dispatched to track the family down.
Cristian was found next to his mother and sister’s bodies hours later, after 911 officials in Mexico contacted US Customs and Border Protection.
Pena and Maria were both deemed to have died from heat exhaustion, with no signs of violence found on their bodies. It is unclear what supplies the family had brought with them for their journey.
Christian was rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment, and survived his injuries. He is now being cared for by social services in California.
María José Sánchez, 11, carries her three-year-old Cristían David Morales through the Arizona Desert on August 25 – hours before she and her mom Claudia Pena died of heat stroke
Pena, pictured with her surviving son Cristian, 3, fled her native Colombia after being threatened with a gun, and had planned to reunite with husband Victor Morales in Florida
Maria, who died alongside her mom, is pictured with Cristian outside a Mexico convenience store during the trip that ultimately killed them. The family were taken across the border into Arizona by a ‘coyote’ people smuggler, who then left them to fend for themselves
Another photo posted by Pena showed her children playing in the Arizona desert
Pena traveled from her home in Colombia to make the illegal crossing in a bid to be reunited with husband Victor Morales, who lives in Florida, Telemundo reported.
The mom told Morales that she’d been prompted to make the trip after being threatened with a gun in her hometown of Tunja, which sits in Colombia’s Boyaca state.
No further details of that incident have been shared.
Morales said he hadn’t seen Pena since January 2019, and that he’d never met Cristian, but that they’d stayed in touch via video calls, Univision reported.
After crossing the US border, Pena had planned to turn herself into border agents, or dial 911 if she didn’t see any in the vicinity.
This map shops the US-Mexico border along California, including the area where Claudia and Maria’s bodies were found
Claudia’s widower Victor Morales, pictured, said his late wife would never have made the trip had she realized it was going to involve a dangerous desert crossing
Maria and Cristian are pictured at an airport in Mexico shortly before making the crossing that killed the 11 year-old and her mother
Morales and Pena last spoke when she got lost in the desert border region.
‘My wife’s greatest desire was for my son to be with me, but she did it at a high price,’ Morales told Telemundo as he fought back tears.
Yeni Acevedo told Tunja radio station Positiva FM that her cousin and the children traveled to Bogotá on August 19 and then took a flight to Mexico City on August 21. They then took a Tijuana-bound flight August 24 around noon and Pena called Acevedo approximately at 9pm to say they had arrived in Mexicali.
Pena reached out to her Acevedo again on August 26 around 6am to let her know that she was leaving Mexico for the United States and that she would reach out to her at a later time because she would not have any service.
Acevedo learned through Morales at 11am that same day that Pena and the kids were already in the U.S. On August 26, Morales called to inform her that Pena and María Jose had been found dead, but that Cristian David was at a medical facility.
Pena made a frantic final call to a 911 operator in the US to plead for help, but fainted before she could send the dispatcher her location
Cristian is currently being cared for by social services, with his father David hopeful of a reunion
Acevedo has since accused the coyotes of misleading his wife, and claims they led her to her death.
‘They never told her that she was going to go through a desert, she would never expose her children that way and she would have told me about that part,’ He said. ‘That is where this story is falls apart, because if she entered Mexico legally, I do not understand how they expose them like that.’
Morales said he has been in touch with a social worker with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has temporary custody of unaccompanied minors before they are reunited with their family members or a sponsor in the country.
He has been instructed to find a place that will be suitable for him and his son to live in as part of the terms of their eventual reunion.
Colombian officials have indicated that they can offer to help Cristian return to his home country, although Morales is keen to have his son live with him in the US.
Morales also said that he was granted permission by Peña’s brother and Sánchez’s biological father to cremate their remains before taking them back to Colombia.
‘I am going to hold a ceremony in the ocean because my (stepdaughter’s) biggest wish was to get to know the sea,’ Morales said.