Four hours inside a sweltering truck: The migrant dream that ended in tragedy

Dangerous journeys by road are becoming increasingly common due to heightened controls on both sides of the US-Mexico border

San Antonio migrants inside tractor trailer
María López wipes away tears as she joins her daughters Alyssa and Marisa near the scene where 53 migrants were found dead inside a tractor trailer.Europa Press/Contacto/San Antonio Express-News (Europa Press)
David Marcial Pérez

The first record was made in the small Texan town of Encinal, half an hour from the Mexican border. It was 2.50pm on Monday of last week and a red Volvo cargo truck was passing through a checkpoint. The driver, wearing a black cap and a striped polo shirt, was captured by security cameras while talking to the police without getting out of the vehicle. The trailer was loaded with 67 people who were risking their lives to cross the border.

A half-hour later, the trailer passed another checkpoint in the town of Cotulla without the agents detecting anything unusual there either. The next record is from 6.20pm; the truck had been abandoned on a road on the outskirts of San Antonio. When the police opened the back of the tractor trailer, 47 migrants had already died from suffocation and dehydration. Six more would die in hospital in the following days.

They were locked up inside a sweltering truck without water or air conditioning for at least four hours, according to the authorities, who also confirmed that it was the greatest migrant tragedy recorded on US soil. They may even have spent more time than that in there, in the middle of a heatwave in Texas, with temperatures reaching 114ºF (46ºC). The truck had entered the US through the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Tamaulipas, a hotspot of organized crime. But the migrants came from further away. Among the deceased, 27 were Mexican, several of them from southern states like Oaxaca. Others came from further still: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Police and other first responders at the scene where the migrants were found dead on June 27, 2022.
Police and other first responders at the scene where the migrants were found dead on June 27, 2022.Eric Gay (AP)

Official communication from authorities has been scarce since the day of the tragedy, fueling rumors about the identity of the migrants. The news agency The Associated Press has been able to confirm that the victims included two Guatemalan children, Wilmer Tulul and Pascual Melvin Guachiac, both 13 years old. “Mom, we’re on our way,” was the last message the family received. The minors, who were cousins, left on June 14 from the community of Tzucubal, in the mountainous southwest of the Central American country. Their goal was to get to Houston, where relatives were waiting for them. According to the same source, the father of one of the boys had paid $3,000 to a coyote, or human smuggler. Another $3,000 was to be paid once they reached their destination.

The ongoing investigation, which has already resulted in four arrests, has not clarified whether the migrants crossed the border inside the truck. The most common pattern is that, despite having crossed Mexico inside the trailers, migrants are made to get off a little before the border, which they then cross on foot through some little-guarded area of the semi-desert territory shared by both countries. Once on US soil, after the border control, they return to the truck to reach one of the big US cities. Once inside US territory, the truck with the 67 people aboard passed two controls, which extend over the first 100 kilometers of Texan territory. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, justified himself on Wednesday by saying that “the border patrol does not have the resources to inspect all the trucks.” Timothy Tubbs, a former police chief in Laredo, told the local press that criminals often spray migrants with spices and food seasonings to camouflage the smell from the agents’ dogs.

It’s also unclear what time the truck arrived at the road where it was found, a lonely turnoff from the main highway. At 5.55pm, the police received an emergency call. The owner of an auto body repair shop in an area near the highway told this newspaper, the day after the tragedy, that one of his workers was the person who notified the police: “When he went to work he found the trailer stopped there. He approached and heard cries for help in Spanish from inside the trailer. He got scared and called the emergency number.” Authorities believe the driver must have had a breakdown and decided to abandon the vehicle. In fact, he was arrested while fleeing the scene on foot and tried to pass himself off as one of the migrants. The driver is one of four detainees who have been accused of human trafficking and may be sentenced to death.

More trucks, fewer trains

The use of cargo trucks for human trafficking by organized crime is increasingly common, especially after the tightening of controls on the lines of the freight train that crosses Mexico to the north, explicitly nicknamed La Bestia (The Beast). In 2014, a joint agreement between the governments of Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto focused efforts on blocking that path. “Walls were built, more police were put in place, and the speed of the train was even increased so that people couldn’t get on or off easily,” explains Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration. From 2014 to 2017, the cases of migrant smuggling in cargo trucks that came to light in the US went from just 20 to close to 100, according to a compilation by the Strauss Center in Austin.

San Antonio, Texas
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, far right, and other officers walk away after briefing the media at the scene where an 18-wheeler was searched in the 2000 block of South General McMullen in San Antonio .Sam Owens (AP)

In 2017, a truck with 39 migrants was found in the parking lot of a shopping center in San Antonio. Ten people died on that occasion. “This shows that when you put more restrictions in place, people are forced to look for more dangerous options,” summarizes Kuhner. Since then, the governments of both the United States and Mexico have further tightened border controls.

Three years ago, the executive of Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador approved an order forcing bus companies to request immigration documents from their clients before selling them tickets. Another exceptional measure introduced during the Covid pandemic, Title 42, has allowed the US to immediately return undocumented migrants to the Mexican shore for two years.

Paradoxically, this fast-track mechanism that does not deport migrants to their actual countries of origin but leaves them in Mexico instead, has encouraged people to insistently try crossing again, according to human rights organizations. In the month of May, all records were broken with more than 239,000 illegal border crossings. The impact of the pandemic has also caused changes in migratory patterns. Mexico had reduced almost to a minimum the number of undocumented entries into the US by its own nationals. In the last year, however, that figure has doubled. And the crossings continue to rise, as this week’s tragedy showed, as nearly half of the people traveling in the back of the truck were Mexican.

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