A heartbreaking photo shows an 11-year-old migrant girl carrying her three-year-old brother across the desert hours before she and her mother died of heat after crossing the US border from Mexico.
María José Sánchez was tricked by her mother Claudia Marcela Peña and her toddler brother Cristian David Morales on August 26, shortly before the tragic deaths of the mother and daughter after they were lost in the scorching heat of the Sonoran Desert near Yuma, Arizona.
Peña frantically called 911 in Sonora, Mexico, after entering the US with a “coyote” trafficker who then abandoned the family, begging, “Please help me.”
When asked by the operator how many people were with her, she added, “Two children. Please help me. I’m going to faint.’
In the background you can hear María say to her, “Mommy, I’m hungry.” Peña was heard trying to calm her daughter by replying, “Soon, my love.”
The dispatcher asked Peña to send her her location via WhatsApp messaging, but Peña’s phone died before she could do so.
That saw the agency’s Air and Marine Operations track down the family.
Cristian was found hours later next to the bodies of his mother and sister, after 911 officials in Mexico contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Peña and María were both presumed to have died of heat exhaustion, with no signs of violence on their bodies. It is unclear what supplies the family had brought with them for their trip.
Somerton Cocopah Fire Brigade Battalion Caps. Louis Carlos told DailyMail.com Cristían David Morales was ‘a bit lethargic’ when border agents discovered the family
The officers drove through the rough terrain and handed him over to paramedics.
Cristian was rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment and survived his injuries. He is now being cared for by California Social Services.
María José Sánchez (11) carries her three-year-old Cristian David Morales through the Arizona desert on Aug. 25 — hours before she and her mother Claudia Marcela Peña died of heat stroke
Peña, pictured with her surviving son Cristian, 3, fled her native Colombia after being threatened with a gun, planning to reunite with husband Victor Morales in Florida
Maria, who died with her mother, is pictured with Cristian outside a supermarket in Mexico during the journey that ultimately cost them their lives. The family was taken across the border to Arizona by a ‘coyote’ people smuggler, who then left them to fend for themselves
Another photo posted by Peña showed her kids playing in the Arizona desert
Peña traveled from her home in Colombia to make the illegal crossing in an attempt to reunite with husband Victor Morales, who lives in Florida, Telemundo reported.
The mother told Morales she was asked to make the trip after being threatened with a gun in her hometown of Tunja, in the Colombian state of Boyacá.
No further details about that incident have been shared.
Morales said he hadn’t seen Peña since January 2019 and that he had never met Cristian, but they kept in touch via video calls, Univision reported.
After crossing the US border, Peña planned to turn into border agents, or call 911 if she didn’t see one nearby.
This map shows the US-Mexico border along California, including the area where Claudia and Maria’s bodies were found
Claudia’s widower Víctor Morales, pictured, said his late wife would never have made the journey had she known it would be 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 Peña last spoke when she was lost in the desert frontier.
“My wife’s greatest desire was for my son to be with me, but she did it at a great price,” Morales told Telemundo, fighting back tears.
Yeni Acevedo told Tunja radio station Positive 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 flight to Tijuana at about noon on August 24, and Peña called Acevedo at about 9:00 pm to say they had arrived in Mexicali.
Peña contacted her Acevedo again around 6 a.m. on August 26 to let her know that she was leaving Mexico for the United States and that she would contact her at a later date as she would not be on duty.
Acevedo learned through Morales at 11 a.m. that same day that Peña and the children were already in the US. On August 26, Morales called to inform her that Peña and María José had been found dead, but that Cristian David was in a medical facility.
Peña made one last frenetic emergency call to an operator in the US begging for help, but passed out before she could send the dispatcher her location
Cristian is currently being looked after by social services while his father David hopes for a reunion
Acevedo has since accused the coyotes of deceiving his wife, claiming that they led her to her death.
“They never told her she was going through a desert, she would never expose her kids that way and she would have told me about that part,” he said. “That’s where this story falls apart, because if she got into Mexico legally, I don’t understand how they expose them like that.”
Morales said he has been in contact with a social worker from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, which has temporary custody of unaccompanied minors before they are reunited with their relatives or a sponsor in the country.
He has been tasked with finding a place suitable for him and his son to live in as part of the terms of their eventual reunion.
Colombian officials have indicated they can help Cristian return to his home country, although Morales is keen to have his son live with him in the US.
Morales also said he had obtained permission from Peña’s brother and Sánchez’s biological father to cremate their remains before returning them to Colombia.
“I’m going to have a ceremony in the ocean because my (stepdaughter’s) greatest wish was to get to know the sea,” Morales said.