The number of migrants who died after being thrown into stuffy tractor in Texas rose to 51 on Tuesday in what could be the deadliest human-smuggling incident in U.S. history.
As federal investigators tried to link the tragedy to an extensive human trafficking network stretching from Central America to the United States, they announced that three people had been arrested in the case.
Two Mexican citizens who were in the US illegally – Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez – were charged with illegal possession of firearms after police traced the truck’s registration to an address in San Antonio and then checked house, according to them, criminal cases were initiated. Another suspect is a US citizen who allegedly drove a truck and fled into a nearby field, where he was detained and later hospitalized, according to a law enforcement source.
World leaders, including Pope Francis and President Biden, spoke out on the tragedy with the Pope calling a prayer “for these brothers and sisters who died in the hope of a better life.”
At least 27 Mexican nationals, seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans were among the dead, according to Mexican officials. “We are in mourning,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted.
The tragedy is sure to rekindle the debate over illegal immigration, an issue that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been politically exploiting as he seeks re-election this year. He has stationed National Guard troops and state police along the Mexican border and sent migrants to Washington on buses to draw attention to what he calls President Biden’s “open border policy” even as many Trump-era immigration policies remain in place. .
In response to the loss of life, migrant advocates have renewed calls for more legal entry routes into the US, as well as harsher penalties for traffickers on both sides of the border.
The trailer was discovered Monday night near a section of railroad tracks in an industrial part of San Antonio after a worker heard a cry for help, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said. The worker opened the doors, found “several dead inside” and called the police.
Rescuers found 46 dead migrants in the truck, as well as 16 survivors – 12 adults and four minors – who were taken to hospitals. The survivors were too weak to get out of the trailer on their own, said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood, who described their bodies as “hot to the touch” and said there was no sign of water or a working air conditioner in the car. Temperatures in San Antonio hovered around 100 degrees on Monday.
Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, representing the area, visited two University Hospital survivors on Tuesday – a teenage boy in intensive care whose nationality has not been determined, and a 23-year-old woman who said she left Guatemala. three weeks ago.
A woman who had just had her breathing tube removed told Clay-Flores that she was driving with her brother in a tractor-trailer.
“She said she felt weak and tried to find him and then passed out,” Clay-Flores said. “She said, ‘I don’t know anything about my brother.’
Judge Nelson Wolf, a former mayor of San Antonio, said the local sheriff told him he thought the truck had come from Laredo, a border town 150 miles south, and had to stop due to mechanical problems.
Helping migrants cross the border on foot, smugglers often ferry them north in car trunks or tractor trailers to avoid detection at migrant checkpoints that dot southern Texas, says Stephanie Leuthert, director of the Central American and Mexican Policy Initiative at the University of Texas. . in Austin.
Cars often make their way to San Antonio, where migrants are dropped off at safe houses and then transported to other parts of the country, she said.
On Tuesday, investigators and residents searched for clues along a bushy Quintana Road where a tractor-trailer was found.
About a mile away, the owners of Leo’s Truck & Trailer Repairs were watching surveillance video.
Cynthia Rocamontes, who owns the store with her husband, said she was on her way to lunch shortly before 11 a.m. Monday when she saw several SUVs whizzing by.
It was a rare sight on these desert roads. So on Tuesday, she called her sister-in-law and grandson to help her review the footage.
– Okay, look, look! Cynthia exclaimed as the first SUV appeared. They counted six SUVs, the drivers could not be seen because of the tinted windows, the front license plates were hard to read.
“They were pickup trucks,” suggested her grandson Aydin Rocamontes. At 11, he already knew how smuggling operations work.
“This is where we live,” explained his mother, Shelly Rocamontes. “We talk about these things.”
The family wondered if the truck driver could have taken a detour off Interstate 35, the main smuggling artery that runs directly north of Laredo.
Police were still searching areas adjacent to Quintana Road with dogs on Tuesday, business owners said.
Tony Bokanian said he found police behind his A-1 scrap yard shortly after they found a tractor-trailer on Monday.
Bokanian said that while standing on the back of his truck, he could clearly see the back of the trailer. According to him, by that time the police had removed several bodies and covered them with yellow sheets.
“I saw bodies, two heads,” he said. “They were little kids: 20, 21.”
Bokanian immigrated to the US from Iran on a student visa in 1999, became a citizen five years later and is raising three children in San Antonio.
He said he understands that his experience is different from that of migrants coming from Mexico and Central America. “There has to be a better system” for legal entry into the US from those countries, he said. “The way it’s happening is very dangerous.”
In recent decades, the path of migrants has become increasingly dangerous, and the number of migrants relying on smugglers has increased dramatically. Fatal accidents are not uncommon.
More than 650 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border last year, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration.
In 2017, 10 people died after they were left in a tractor-trailer near a Walmart in San Antonio. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
In 2003, 19 migrants died after being abandoned in a trailer at a truck stop south of San Antonio. Driver Tyrone Mapletoft Williams was convicted and is serving nearly 34 years in prison.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Tuesday called for tougher penalties for smugglers.
“It is unforgivable that innocent lives continue to be lost due to smuggling of migrants!” have wrote on Twitter. “It is imperative that mechanisms for tougher sentences be found and that smuggling be considered a crime for which the perpetrators can be extradited.”
Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador said on Tuesday that his country was ready to support the investigation. “I want to express my deepest condolences to the families of the Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran migrants who died of asphyxiation in a trailer yesterday,” he said, adding that he planned to discuss the incident during a meeting with Biden in Washington next month.
In a statement, Biden, who is in Europe for the G-7 and NATO summits, blamed the tragedy on smugglers, saying they “ignore the lives they endanger and use them for profit.”
“This incident highlights the need to go after the multi-billion dollar smuggling criminal industry that preys on migrants and causes far too many innocent deaths,” Biden said.
But migrant advocates say US border policy pushes migrants into the hands of smugglers.
“The Biden administration needs to see this heartbreaking tragedy for what it is: a loud call to end deeply flawed and dangerous immigration policies,” said Wendy Young, president of migrant rights group Children in Need of Protection.
“This latest tragedy and the alarming rise in migrant deaths around the world underscore the need to create safer pathways to protect refugees.”
In recent years, US border guards have targeted not only economic migrants looking for work, but also asylum seekers seeking protection.
Section 42, which former President Trump invoked in 2020 on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19, allows border authorities to immediately remove migrants even if they say they want to seek asylum in the US. The US has expelled migrants more than 2 million times.
This year, the Biden administration tried to repeal Section 42, but its efforts were blocked by referee after two dozen states sued.
Eunice Rendon, a migrant activist in Mexico, said various measures are needed, arguing that authorities should target not only the smugglers’ networks but also the officials who help them in Central America and Mexico.
At the same time, she said there was a need for more information sharing between law enforcement agencies in each country, as well as a comprehensive plan to allow some migrants fleeing violence or economic desperation to cross over to the US.
“These tragedies happen again and again,” she said. “They show the complete failure of immigration policy in the region.”
Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Antonio, Linthicum from Mexico City and Aleazis from Healdsburg, California. Times staff writers Richard Winton and Gregory Yee of Los Angeles and Cecilia Sanchez of Mexico City contributed to this report.