Texas tragedy: Trailer carrying migrants passed through two US checkpoints

The death toll has risen to 53 after two victims died in hospital. Another 14 people remain in a serious condition after being rescued from the abandoned truck

Police officers and first responders stand next to the trailer in which 53 migrants died, in San Antonio.
Police officers and first responders stand next to the trailer in which 53 migrants died, in San Antonio.Eric Gay (AP)

The tractor-trailer that was abandoned in San Antonio, Texas, with 67 migrants inside, passed through two security checkpoints in the United States, without anyone realizing that dozens of people were hidden in the back. That’s according to the director of the National Institute of Migration of Mexico, Francisco Garduño, who revealed the new information at a press conference on Wednesday. Authorities from the US and Mexico added that three suspects are in custody: one US citizen and two Mexicans. The number of migrants who died inside the stifling trailer has risen to 53, according to the Bexar county medical examiner’s office. Forty of the victims were male and 13 were female, it said. It is considered the highest ever death count from human trafficking near the US-Mexico border.

Another 14 people remain in hospital after presenting symptoms of extreme dehydration, bleeding, and kidney, liver and neurological failure. As of Tuesday afternoon, most remained in a serious condition. Authorities are now working to identify the survivors and victims. According to preliminary data presented by the Mexican government, among the dead were 27 people from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador. A total of 37 victims have been identified, but so far the names have not been made public. Among the survivors, there are at least three Mexicans and one Guatemalan citizen. The nationality of the two people who died after being taken to hospital is still unknown.

The report presented by the Mexican government on Wednesday provides a timeline of the hours leading up to the tragedy. The trailer drove up Highway 35, which crosses Texas from the Mexican border. It continued for more than 155 miles (250 kilometers), before it was abandoned 31 miles (50 kilometers) from San Antonio, a major city in the state of Texas.

The trailer passed through the first US Border Patrol checkpoint in Encinal, a small town in Texas 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the border of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Security cameras captured the driver, who was wearing a black cap and striped shirt. It is the last image of the trailer before it was found abandoned in San Antonio, with dozens of dead migrants inside. The driver went through another checkpoint in the city of Cotulla, just 31 miles (50 kilometers) from Encinal. The vehicle was then abandoned next to train tracks that run parallel to the highway. It was found by US agents at 6.20 pm on Monday, by which point 47 migrants had already died due to overcrowding, suffocation and dehydration.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus confirmed on Wednesday that the driver of the trailer was one of the three men arrested. The man, identified as Homero N (his last name has not been made public while the investigation remains open), tried to flee on foot after abandoning the migrants and posed as one of the survivors, according to Mexican and US authorities. The other two suspects were arrested in a home in San Antonio, where the trailer was registered. Both are of Mexican nationality and in an irregular situation in the US. The two have been arrested for illegally possessing guns. “In the records of the National Migration Institute, no data was found on the person accused of driving the trailer. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service [ICE] reported that the three people have been detained for alleged human trafficking and homicide,” Garduño said. Authorities are still trying to establish the trailer’s point of origin and if crimes were committed on the journey to central Texas.

The trailer, a 1995 red Volvo, was registered to a San Antonio company and looked like just another vehicle in their fleet. The owners of the company, Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting, told the local press, however, the trailer had been “cloned” and did not belong to their company. The trailer’s alleged disguise would explain how the driver was able to get past the checkpoints without facing greater scrutiny. A few hours after the trailer was found, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the US plates had been placed on top of the original ones and were likely fake. Eusebio Salinas, the sheriff of Zavala county, which is located between the Mexican border and San Antonio, said that cloned vehicles were common in the area, with FedEx and UPS delivery drivers complaining of thieves stealing the company’s magnetic logos from their trucks.

Tom Homan, the former director of ICE during the Trump administration, said that in recent years, mafias have increasingly used large trailers to traffic migrants. “For a year I have been warning that such a tragedy was going to happen due to the increase in smuggling via trailers,” he told a local media outlet. Last month, police intercepted a trailer carrying 88 people in Rio Grande Valley, Texas. And in May, two men were arrested near the Texas border for smuggling 124 migrants in a trailer. Last December, 57 migrants died when a packed freight truck flipped over and crashed into a bridge in the Mexican state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala.

Border control has been a thorny issue for the Joe Biden administration, with Republicans accusing him of not being tough enough and human rights groups demanding he do more to protect refugees. This division has also marked the response to the Texas tragedy. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and members of the Republican Party have blamed the tragedy on Biden and his so-called “open-door policy.” Migrant advocacy organizations and Democrats, however, have said it is a sign of the lengths that asylum seekers will go to in order to escape the dangers in their home countries. The issue is poised to play a key role in the upcoming midterm elections in November.

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