Two charged after the death of 51 migrants inside a tractor-trailer in Texas
At least 51 migrants have died after being trapped in a blistering semi-trailer truck that was found abandoned in Texas, authorities said Tuesday, as two Mexican nationals involved in the smuggling incident were charged by US federal court.
The deceased migrants, 39 men and 12 women, were discovered Monday on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, in one of the deadliest human trafficking tragedies in recent history.
Two suspects identified as Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, both Mexican citizens, have been charged with possession of weapons while illegally residing in the United States, according to court documents and US authorities.
Investigators traced the truck’s vehicle registration to an address in San Antonio that they placed under surveillance, and arrested the two men separately as they both left the residence.
A third suspect, described as a US citizen who was driving the truck, has also been taken into custody and is due to be charged, but he remained in hospital Tuesday night, according to a Mexican official.
The truck was parked next to a number of railroad tracks in the suburbs of San Antonio, where temperatures rose to 39.4 degrees Celsius. Bodies were found inside the vehicle and scattered about a few blocks after the trailer’s back door was opened, a local law enforcement official told Reuters on Tuesday.
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 migrants felt warm.
“It’s unspeakable,” San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg told MSNBC, noting that his community is dependent on migrants while there is a labor shortage. “It is a tragedy that cannot be explained.”
US President Joe Biden said in a statement Tuesday that the incident was “horrifying and heartbreaking”.
“Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful,” Biden said.
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.
More than a dozen survivors were transported to area hospitals for heat stroke and exhaustion, including four minors.
At a news conference outside one of the hospitals treating patients on Tuesday, Rebeca Clay-Flores, a Democratic local official in Bexar County, Texas, sharply criticized Republican Governor Greg Abbott for a tweet Monday night that blamed Biden’s border policies on the incident, even as emergency aid unfolded.
“While the bodies were still being removed and others taken to local hospitals, he chose to be heartless and point the finger,” Clay-Flores said.
The truck may have been carrying about 100 migrants, but the exact number remained unclear, according to the law enforcement official and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official briefed on the investigation.
According to a Mexican official, the CBP official and another US official, who all requested anonymity to discuss the matter, it appeared the migrants had recently crossed the border and were being picked up by the truck to be taken to work. .
Authorities were notified of the truck by a 911 emergency call from a passerby who had been signaled for help by a migrant who had escaped from the truck, 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 a number of bodies inside.
The surviving migrants are likely to be released into the United States 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 US 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.
Highway 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 US immigration and customs agency. research 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.