Authorities in the United States have opened a criminal investigation into the deaths of at least 51 people trapped inside a blistering tractor-trailer found abandoned in the south Texas city of San Antonio.
The incident was one of the deadliest human trafficking tragedies along the US-Mexico border.
The truck driver and two other people involved in the smuggling incident were arrested Tuesday, Texas U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar told the Associated Press news agency.
The driver, a U.S. citizen, is currently in hospital, a Mexican official told Reuters news agency.
The other men, named Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, both Mexican citizens, were arrested from the building where the truck was registered. According to court documents, the men were charged with possessing firearms while illegally residing in the U.S. The complaints made no specific allegations related to the deaths.
The dead included 39 men and 12 women, and they were discovered Monday on the outskirts of San Antonio, where temperatures rose to 39.4C (103F). A local law enforcement officer told Reuters that bodies were found inside the vehicle and scattered a few blocks after the trailer’s back door was opened.
Local authorities said there were no signs of water or visible air conditioning in the truck. The officials said there were “piles of bodies,” and some refugees and migrants felt warm.
“It’s unspeakable,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg told MSNBC, noting that his community is dependent on migrants due to a labor shortage. “It is a tragedy that cannot be explained.”
More than a dozen survivors, including four minors, were transported to area hospitals for heat stroke and exhaustion.
Residents visit to mourn the victims at the site where dozens of refugees and migrants were found dead in a trailer truck in San Antonio, Texas, on June 28, 2022. [Go Nakamura/ Reuters]
U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the incident was “horrifying and heartbreaking”.
“Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful,” said Biden, who vowed to crack down on multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling companies that have contributed to record numbers of refugees and migrants at the US-Mexico border since taking office in January 2021.
At least 27 Mexicans, three Guatemalans, and four Hondurans are said to be among the dead, officials from all three countries said. There was no direct information on the nationalities of the other victims.
The truck may have been carrying about 100 refugees and migrants, but the exact number remained unclear, officials told Reuters.
Reuters reported that they had recently crossed the border and were being picked up by the truck to be taken to work, citing a Mexican official, a customs and border protection (CBP) official, and another official from the United States—the U.S., all of which to anonymity to discuss the matter.
Authorities were notified of the truck via a 911 emergency call from a passerby who was turned in for help by a migrant who had escaped from the car, officials said. The victims were found sprinkled with a sharp substance; officials said, a practice known for some smugglers to mask the smell of human cargo and evade dog detection.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said Monday that a person who works in a nearby building heard a cry for help, came out to investigate, found the trailer doors partially open, and saw several bodies inside.
The surviving refugees and migrants are likely to be released into the U.S. to seek asylum or other forms of humanitarian aid, the CBP official and two other law enforcement officers told Reuters.
Some survivors of past human trafficking have been taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service to testify as witnesses.
The deaths highlighted the challenge of controlling migrant crossings for Biden, a Democrat who took office and vowed to roll back some of the harsh immigration policies of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. Republicans have criticized Biden’s border strategy ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.
Interstate I-35, near where the truck was found, runs through San Antonio from the Mexican border and is a popular smuggling route because of the large number of trucks, said Jack Staton, a former senior official with a U.S. Immigration Service and Customs Enforcement Investigation Unit. Who retired in December.
In July 2017, 10 migrants died after being transported in a tractor-trailer discovered by San Antonio police in a Walmart parking lot. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr, was later sentenced to life in prison for his role in that smuggling operation.
“It was only a matter of time before a tragedy like this happened again,” Staton said.
The U.S. CBP reported 557 deaths at the Southwestern border in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported the previous year and the highest since it began tracking in 1998. Most had to do with heat exposure.