Alleged migrant truck driver who died in the sweltering heat of Texas this week, he could face the death penalty for his part in one of the deadliest human trafficking incidents in US history.
On Wednesday, as the total death toll in the case rose to 53, federal prosecutors indicted 45-year-old Homero Zamorano Jr. with smuggling of immigrants resulting in death.
Federal prosecutors also charged 28-year-old Christian Martinez with conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants resulting in death. He, too, could face the death penalty if found guilty. Cell phone records purportedly show that he and Zamorano communicated about the smuggling attempt.
A large drilling rig was discovered Monday night near a section of railroad tracks in an industrial area in San Antonio after a worker at an asphalt-laying company heard a cry for help.
Another company worker, Roberto Quintero, ran out to find a 10 or 11 year old girl who managed to get out of the truck and was sitting on the ground, pounding on the sidewalk and screaming.
“I didn’t recognize her name and didn’t think to ask where she came from,” Quintero, 57, said. “She just kept hanging in my arms and screaming, ‘Help me, help me. ”
When Quintero looked inside the truck, he saw bodies “stacked against the edge of the door, as if they were trying to get out,” he said. “Some of them have already turned blue and purple lips. There were a couple of people who were still conscious, just gasping for air.”
When the first rescuers arrived, they “found several people, some still inside the tractor-trailer, some on the ground and in nearby bushes, many of them dead and some incapacitated,” the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a statement. It is reported that 48 people died on the spot, five more later died in hospitals.
According to the statement, authorities found Zamorano “hiding in the bushes” nearby.
A US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the suspect, a US citizen, first pretended to be a migrant and appeared to be under the influence of drugs. He was taken to the hospital.
Prosecutors said video footage showed Zamorano driving a tractor-trailer through an immigration checkpoint near the Texas border town of Laredo earlier Monday. The statement said that Zamorano “matched the person to the surveillance footage and was wearing the same clothes.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said on Wednesday that a tractor-trailer was not inspected at a checkpoint “because Border Patrol does not have the resources to inspect all the trucks.” He announced that the state would add new checkpoints near the border aimed at finding people smugglers.
First responders said there was no sign of water or a working air conditioner in the truck, even though temperatures hovered around 100 degrees in San Antonio on Monday. Law enforcement officials did not explain why the truck was stopped in San Antonio, although some have suggested it may have had mechanical problems.
After crossing the border on foot, smugglers often lure migrants into the trunks of cars or tractor trailers to avoid detection at the ubiquitous border patrol checkpoints in south Texas.
According to court records and interviews with his sister, Zamorano has a long criminal history.
Texas Department of Corrections records show that he was last sent to jail for approximately 15 months in 2016 and 2017 for waiving bail and failing to appear in court. Prior to that, he served almost three years for burglary, starting in 2000.
His sister, Tomasita Medina, said Zamorano is the eldest of three siblings who grew up in the border town of Brownsville, about 480 miles southeast of San Antonio.
Around the age of 14, she said, Zamorano, known to relatives as “Homer,” became addicted to drugs and then dropped out of school around the sixth grade.
“That’s why we never see him,” she said. “He always had a problem, a drug problem. Because of this, he always appears and disappears from our lives.
She said Zamorano moved frequently, from the border to east Texas, south Florida, and finally Houston, after Medina and the rest of the family settled there in 1998. Samarano worked occasionally as a laborer, stealing to finance his drug use and pass the time. behind bars, Medina said.
The last time Medina saw her brother was a few months ago when he came for a week to help their little brother with the yard work. He was his usual self, “dumb” and “always joking,” she said.
Medina said she was shocked when she saw a news report on Wednesday that her brother had been arrested in connection with the death of a tractor-trailer. All she could think of was that he was involved because of his drug addiction.
“Perhaps he was offered drugs or money for drugs,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t think he would have done it.”
Medina said the arrest was particularly painful because the family has roots in Matamoros, Mexico, right across the border from Brownsville.
“I am devastated on both sides,” she said. “It’s hard because we come from an immigrant family. My dad was born in Mexico, he grew up in Mexico.”
In total, four persons were charged in the case of the death of people. 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. criminal complaints filed against them on Tuesday.
The tragedy isn’t the first time smugglers have stuffed a trailer with migrants, with deadly consequences.
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.
Quintero, a road company employee, returned to work on Thursday. From his office, he sees commemorative crosses where the truck was left.
“I try to stay away from it to get it out of my head,” he said. “I grew up with immigrants on a farm. It’s hard to see these people struggling to get here only to die.”
Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Antonio, Winton from Los Angeles, Linthicum from Mexico City and Aleaziz from Healdsburg, California. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.