San Antonio – The tractor and trailer sat on the worn-out asphalt of Quintana Road, a debris-strewn urban hinterland between train tracks and salvage yards. Its rear doors hung loose and open, and in the distance along the bread pier, several dead bodies lay on the road.
At first, the truck received little attention against the backdrop of Monday afternoon in the San Antonio Industrial Estate. This was the idea: it was meant to be one leg up in a sprawling and mostly hidden smuggling network of cars, trucks, guides and home bunkers used to illegally transport thousands upon thousands of people into the United States.
The use of large trucks to pack migrants and hide migrants is increasing, current and former officials said, a way to maximize the profits of criminal networks and a sign of the growing desperation of those seeking to enter the country by any means possible.
Along the Quintana Road, something went wrong. The truck, which was carrying Texas plates, was not moving. The driver had fled on foot.
A nearby worker soon approached, attracted by a cry for help, he discovered the horrific consignment: at least 62 people, smuggled from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, most of them already died from the heat. At least 51 deaths will be announced by Tuesday in what officials have described as among the worst immigrant deaths in the United States in recent years.
“I have been warning for a year of a tragedy due to an increase in truck smuggling,” said Tom Homan, a former acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Trump administration. “In California, Arizona and Texas, they saw a lot of tractors and trailers,” he said. “They can pick up eight in a truck, 12 in a pickup truck or at least get 80 in a trailer truck.”
According to the country’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, the country’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said the largest share of deaths in San Antonio were immigrants believed to be from Mexico, who said 22 Mexicans died along with at least seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans. Others have not yet been identified.
“We mourn those 51 immigrants who came to us to breathe that fresh air but instead found death in Texas,” said Nelson Wolf, chief executive officer of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. He criticized the country’s leadership for spending billions on National Guard forces and other border security measures instead of using the money to provide food and shelter to migrants and arrest smugglers.
Officials said at least three people were arrested in connection with the case on Monday and are currently in the custody of the Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the Department of Homeland Security that investigates deaths. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged two of them, Juan Francisco Deluna Bilbao and Juan Claudio Deluna-Mendez, with possession of a handgun without legal residence in the country after officers stopped them outside a home in San Antonio where the truck was registered. .
Authorities said the truck driver was also detained, but it was not clear if any charges had been brought against him.
“We had him leave the scene,” William McManus, chief of the San Antonio Police Department, said in an interview with the New York Times. It was found in a nearby field.
Chief McManus said the truck had Texas license plates and fit a pattern that officers noticed in the city: the use of tractors and trailers by people smugglers. “We’ve seen it many times,” he said. “It is inherently dangerous,” he said, “because once you get stuck in there, you get stuck.” “Once the refrigerator goes out, the air conditioning goes out, nothing but a death trap.”
Officials said the truck had no working cooling system, causing people who were hidden inside the truck to overheat as outside temperatures soared above 100 degrees on Monday. Officials said no water was found inside the truck. Among the dead were 39 men and 12 women, according to a Bexar County spokesperson. At least 11 survivors are still receiving treatment in area hospitals for heat stroke, some of whom are in critical condition.
The president said the vehicle looked like a truck with a legitimate purpose, with a copy of the company’s badge on the door. Law enforcement officials said doing so was a common tactic. “Vehicles cloned in this area are nothing unusual,” said Sheriff Osivio Salinas of Zavala County between the border and San Antonio. They clone utility trucks and cable trucks. We’ve got FedEx and UPS drivers saying they’re stealing their magnetic stickers.”
Cities like San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles have long been major distribution points for immigrants brought into the country by smuggling networks through cities like Laredo.
The networks follow a pattern that has become familiar to US border officials. Officials say the smugglers will bring small groups of about five or 10 people across the border, connect them with other members of the network on the American side who pick them up and drive them in private cars to a gathering area, commonly referred to as a stash house. It may be homes on a farm in an isolated area, or abandoned homes in frontier communities. Once there is a large group, sometimes around 80 or more, they are loaded onto a drilling rig and taken to the big cities.
If a truck manages to clear the multiple Border Patrol checkpoints on the US side of the border, it is unlikely to be stopped heading north unless the driver commits a traffic violation.
Just last month, federal agents have intercepted several groups of immigrants hiding in tractor trailers, including 88 in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and more than a dozen tucked between pallets of scrap metal at a checkpoint outside of Valfurias, Texas.
Two men from Mexico were arrested and charged in May with smuggling 124 migrants crammed into a tractor-trailer. According to prosecutors, the truck was intercepted at a checkpoint along Interstate 35, and the driver was paid to take them to San Antonio.
But much remained unclear about the circumstances surrounding the route taken by the migrants found on Monday.
Officials did not say where the immigrants crossed, how they got to the remote route in San Antonio, nor whether it was a particular place along their journey or where they ended up due to the avalanche.
Rudy Martinez, a tow driver who operates along Quintana Road, said he saw the 18-wheeler turn left on the road sometime before 5 p.m. Monday. “I saw the man driving his car. I waved to the driver.” “The driver was wearing a neon shirt like the guys directing traffic through.”
By 5:51 p.m., the worker approached the truck and called 911, the manager said.
The nationalities of those found aboard the truck underlined a shift in migration patterns that began during the pandemic, with Mexican migrants returning across the border after years of decline.
Since the introduction of Title 42, a public health rule, Mexicans and Central Americans have been promptly expelled to Mexico when encountered by the US Border Patrol.
This has led many of them to repeatedly try to infiltrate the country until they succeed. Last month, one in four migrants apprehended before was arrested at least once in the past 12 months.
The situation fueled a criminal underground economy on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Migrants are at the mercy of smuggling organizations, whose tentacles have stretched from villages in Latin America to deep in American cities. Along their way, they exchange hands and cars several times.
In multiple interviews over the past two years, migrants and aid workers have said it is nearly impossible to travel without paying the gangs that control swathes of the Mexican side of the border, and whose smuggling services extend into the United States.
It’s not unusual for trucks carrying immigrants to pass through, said Adriana Rocha, a San Antonio city council member who represents the area where the immigrants were found. Ms. Rocha, on a recent trip with local police, said she noted that the isolation of the area provides cover for those who transport migrants illegally.
Jack Staton, a former senior Homeland Security investigations executive, said it was highly unlikely that platforms transporting immigrants would be discovered along the busy Laredo-San Antonio trade corridor. “It’s the perfect way to smuggle people when you have many vehicles coming in a day,” he said. “You’re merging with normal commercial traffic.”
While families crossing the border usually surrender to agents, most migrants transported in commercial vehicles are single adults who seek to avoid detection.
“These are individuals who don’t want to be arrested or turn themselves in. They want to go to work,” said Mr. Staton, who retired from the Department of Homeland Security in December. “Covid was destroying economies, putting people out of work.”
Homan, who has worked for 35 years in border enforcement, said the worst day of his life was when he was recruited in 2003 to lead an investigation in Victoria, Texas, in a smuggling operation that killed 19 migrants in a trailer.
“They were suffocating inside a steel box where the temperature was 170 degrees,” Mr. Homann said.
“People were wearing their underwear,” he added, after they tore their clothes in a desperate attempt to calm down. “It was like a house of horrors.”
Those working along the Quintana Route said the outlying area has been a place of retreat for immigrants since at least the 1990s.
“I know that when I started working in the yards, a lot of people came from Mexico,” said Rose Ann Inegiz, 53, manager of Junk Yard Dogs car rescue. “They were hungry and thirsty.”
Ms. Inegiz said she was shocked to learn of a death only a few hundred meters from her workplace. “They are human beings. I know why they come. They have to survive, too,” she said.
She said she was seeing more people walking in the past. Now those who passed seemed more cautious. “I think they are afraid,” she said. When I see immigrants, they ride in cars. Someone is there to pick them up.”
Contribute to reporting Edgar SandovalAnd the Maria Abi-HabibAnd the Oscar LopezAnd the Eileen SullivanAnd the Alexandra E PetriAnd the Zulan Kanu YoungsAnd the David Montgomery And the Daniel Victor. Susan C. Beachy Contribute to research.