by Dave Harmon
Authorities in at least four countries in addition to the U.S. worked Wednesday to identify the people who died from a tractor-trailer discovered in San Antonio on Monday and begin the grim process of bringing their citizens’ bodies home.
The death toll rose again Wednesday, to 53, after two more migrants died in San Antonio hospitals, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office told The Washington Post. Forty of the victims were men and 13 were women, the office told the newspaper, adding that it had “potential identifications” of 37 victims.
Francisco Garduño Yañez, the head of México’s national migration agency, said at a news conference Wednesday that 67 migrants were inside the trailer. The victims include 27 Mexicans, 14 Hondurans, seven Guatemalans and two Salvadorans, he said. The nationalities of three victims have not been determined.
“The worst one we’ve seen in the U.S.”
Craig Larrabee, Homeland Security Investigations
That’s more than double the number of victims from a similar incident in 2003, when 19 men, women and children died after being trapped for hours in a suffocating trailer that the driver abandoned in Victoria. Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio, told the San Antonio Express-News that Monday’s human smuggling tragedy is “the worst one we’ve seen in the U.S.”
The Express-News reported Wednesday that police arrested Homero Zamorano, 45, after he abandoned the tractor-trailer on semi-rural road near Interstate Highway 35 and fled the scene. A law enforcement source told the newspaper that Zamorano, who has addresses in Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, “was very high on meth when he was arrested nearby and had to be taken to the hospital.”
Garduño, the Mexican migration chief, said the driver initially tried to pretend he was one of the migrants. Two other men were also arrested after police went to a San Antonio house listed on the tractor-trailer’s registration: Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez were both charged with illegal possession of firearms. Court documents said both men are Mexican citizens in the country illegally and therefore prohibited from having firearms. Both are in federal custody and being held without bail.
México’s government has mobilized to investigate the deaths and assist the victims’ families.
Mexico’s federal migration agency announced Tuesday that it would pay to bring the bodies of its citizens back to their homes and cover funeral costs for the families. The country’s attorney general also announced that it has sent a team to investigate the deaths in cooperation with U.S. authorities.
The Mexican Embassy in the U.S. said it was coordinating with consular officials from Guatemala and Honduras to help the survivors and the victims’ families and aid U.S. officials with the criminal investigation. The countries also will form an “action group” to try to dismantle human smuggling organizations, the embassy said.
Meanwhile, details about the migrants’ harrowing journey inside the trailer — which didn’t have a working air conditioner on a sweltering June day — have begun to surface from public officials and interviews with the survivors and their families.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, told The Associated Press that the tractor-trailer passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint outside of Laredo on I-35, but he didn’t know if the migrants were in the trailer when it went through the checkpoint.
At a Wednesday press conference, Gov. Greg Abbott said the tractor-trailer was not inspected at the checkpoint “because the Border Patrol does not have the resources to be able to inspect all of the trucks.” Abbott announced that the state will add new checkpoints near the border to inspect trucks coming from México to try to spot those smuggling people.
Media reports have said that the smugglers covered the migrants with meat seasoning or tenderizer to disguise their smell. Border Patrol agents routinely use dogs to check vehicles passing through checkpoints near the border.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told The Washington Post that authorities believe the driver left the truck on the isolated road after it had mechanical problems. A worker from a nearby business found the migrants after hearing cries for help and called police.
Among the 11 survivors was José Luis Vásquez, a 31-year-old from a village in the southern México state of Oaxaca, who had recently left the Mexican Army and was heading to the U.S. in search of a better life, Vasquez’s uncle told Reuters. Other media reports said his name is José Luis Vásquez Guzmán.
Vásquez was traveling with a cousin — whose fate remains unclear — and last contacted his family on June 19, more than a week before the tragedy, to tell them he had crossed the border and was in a safe house somewhere in Texas, Reuters reported.
Mexican officials said he was recovering in a San Antonio hospital.
In Guatemala, a woman named Esmeralda told the Prensa Libre newspaper that her sister was among the survivors. The newspaper didn’t name the woman who survived, but Esmeralda — whose full name wasn’t published — said her sister’s last WhatsApp message before the tragedy said that she was about to leave Laredo and her phone was going to be taken away, so she would call as soon as she could.
The next message she received about her sister was from one of the smugglers, she told the newspaper. The man told her that her sister was among the people inside the trailer discovered in San Antonio. After fearing that her sister was among the dead, Esmeralda finally got a call from her sister, who said she escaped and was OK, the newspaper reported, adding that Esmeralda didn’t know her sister’s condition.
Dave Harmon is Investigative Editor with The Texas Tribune. Patrick Svitek, a political reporter with The Texas Tribune, contributed to this story. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. Originally published at The Texas Tribune.
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