SAN ANTONIO — The bodies of 46 migrants were found in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio on Monday, the deadliest smuggling incident of its kind in U.S. history.
The horrific incident comes amid a record influx of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, where authorities are on pace to record more than 2 million arrests during fiscal 2022.
Rescuers pulled 16 people from the truck who were still alive and conscious, including four minors, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told reporters. They were taken for medical treatment. Three people have been taken into police custody, authorities said.
According to Hood, the bodies removed from the truck “were hot to the touch.”
“There were no signs of water in the vehicle, and no visible working AC unit on that rig,” he said.
Smuggling organizations working inside the United States sometimes pack migrants into trucks and cargo trailers after they have already crossed the border, to sneak them past highway checkpoints operated by the U.S. Border Patrol. In recent years, there have been several deadly human trafficking incidents on U.S. soil — but the death toll in Monday’s tragedy surpassed those events.
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Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that specializes in human trafficking cases, has taken command of the investigation, authorities said. Authorities did not provide information on the nationality of the victims.
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, describing the migrants as people “who had families, who were likely trying to find a better life.”
Near the scene, the lights of dozens of emergency vehicles flickered into the evening as investigators continued to search along a road running parallel to railroad tracks. Bystanders raised their cellphones toward the scene about 600 feet down the road where a parked tractor-trailer leaned into the brush.
The location is close to Interstate 35, a major transit route for traffic and commerce from the border. Police said the truck full of people was discovered around 6 p.m. local time.
The deaths come amid a surge in migration at the border, with the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures showing that immigration arrests there in May rose to the highest levels ever recorded. CBP made 239,416 arrests along the border last month, a 2 percent increase from April, according to the totals.
The agency is on pace to surpass the record 1.73 million border arrests tallied in 2021 — presenting an ongoing logistical and political challenge for the Biden administration.
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was quick to blame the president for the tragedy, writing that “these deaths are on Biden” in a tweet. He and other GOP candidates running in the November elections have been hammering Democrats over border security issues.
The deaths “are the result of his deadly open border policies,” Abbott wrote. “They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
The latest CBP apprehension figures show growing numbers arriving from countries including Turkey, India, Russia and other nations outside the Western Hemisphere. Large numbers of migrants from Mexico, Central America, Cuba and Haiti also continued to cross. CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus recently warned about the dangers of illegal crossings.
“As temperatures start to rise in the summer, human smugglers will continue to exploit vulnerable populations and recklessly endanger the lives of migrants for financial gain,” Magnus said. “The terrain along the Southwest border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert that migrants must hike after crossing the border are unforgiving.”
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Until now, the deadliest human smuggling event on U.S. soil came on May 13, 2003, when 19 migrants died after riding in the rear compartment of an 18-wheeler in South Texas.
The tragedy in Texas also echoes of one of Britain’s biggest ever homicide investigations. In 2019, the bodies of 39 Vietnamese nationals were found in a refrigerated truck container in Essex, England; four men were charged last year in connection to the deadly incident that underscored the dangers many migrants face when attempting to reach Europe along dangerous smuggling routes. In 2015, more than 70 bodies, including four children were found inside an abandoned truck in Austria amid an escalating refugee crisis.
In the San Antonio case, truck driver Tyrone Williams had agreed to smuggle the migrants across a border checkpoint for $7,500, but he failed to turn on the truck’s cooling system and temperatures inside soared to 173 degrees.
Migrants clawed at the insulation and screamed for help, and when he finally opened the doors in Victoria, Tex., the migrants were found dead of dehydration, overheating and suffocation. Williams was sentenced to 34 years in prison.
On July 23, 2017, 10 migrants died after being smuggled in a tractor-trailer to the parking lot of a Walmart in San Antonio. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., pleaded guilty to charges related to their deaths. Eight migrants died in the trailer and two died at a hospital.
Thirty-nine migrants were found at the scene, but officials said as many as 200 may have been on the trip. Bradley was given a life sentence.
His co-defendant, Pedro Silva Segura, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport aliens resulting in death and was sentenced to 108 months in prison and five years of supervised release.
Authorities in San Antonio said they were alerted to the scene after a worker in a nearby building heard a cry for help and went to investigate.
The trailer door was ajar when law enforcement arrived but those inside were too weak to get themselves out, Hood said. Police did not say what language people were speaking, and the victims were moaning when emergency personnel arrived.
Those found alive were suffering from heat exhaustion but are expected to recover. Hood described them as teens but did not have a full accounting of ages or nationalities.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard dispatched Consul General Rubén Minutti to the scene.
“The nationality of the victims is still being confirmed,” the consulate in San Antonio said on Twitter, saying it would provide “all the support” to our Mexican citizens if they are among the dead.
The truck had U.S. and Texas Department of Transportation registration numbers on the cab. State records indicate a man in Alamo, Tex., is associated with those numbers — but his son-in-law, Isaac Limon, said that whoever ran the smuggling operation fraudulently printed those figures on the truck.
Limon said the truck that corresponds with that registration is a Volvo that has been hauling grain for the past week in another part of Texas. He added that his shaken-up father-in-law was standing next to him as he spoke by phone to The Washington Post.
“It was a perfect setup,” Limon said. “The truck is here. I’m looking at it right now. Sad to say, but he’s a bit of a victim, too, because people believe it was him.”
— Jennifer Hassan contributed to this report from London.