The dead immigrants, 39 men and 12 women, were discovered Monday in the suburbs of San Antonio, Texas, in one of the deadliest human trafficking tragedies in modern history.
Two suspects, Juan Francisco Delona Bilbao and Juan Claudio Delona Mendes, both Mexican citizens, have been charged with illegal possession of firearms while in the United States, according to court documents and US authorities.
Investigators traced the truck’s vehicle registration to an address in San Antonio they placed under surveillance, and arrested the two men separately when they were both seen leaving the house.
A Mexican official said a third suspect, described as a US citizen who was driving the truck, was also detained and charges were expected, but remained in hospital until Tuesday evening.
The truck was left parked near some railroad tracks on the outskirts of San Antonio as temperatures soared to 39.4 degrees Celsius. A local law enforcement official said bodies were found inside the car and scattered over two blocks, after the trailer’s tailgate was opened. Reuters Tuesday.
Local authorities said there were no signs of water or visible means of air conditioning inside the truck. Officials said there were “mounds of bodies” and that some of the migrants were hot to the touch.
“It’s indescribable,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. MSNBCNoting that his society depends on immigrants while there is a shortage of labor. “It is an inexplicable tragedy.”
US President Joe Biden said in a statement on Tuesday that the incident was “terrifying and heartbreaking.”
The loss of life in San Antonio yesterday is horrific – my prayers are with those who lost their lives and loved ones and who are still fighting for their lives.
My government will continue to do everything in its power to prevent criminal smugglers from exploiting migrants.
– President Biden (POTUS) June 28, 2022
“It is shameful to exploit vulnerable individuals for profit,” Biden said, vowing to crack down on the multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling companies that have helped fuel a record number of migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border since taking office in January 2021.
Investigations are underway
At least 27 Mexicans, three Guatemalans and four Hondurans are believed to be among the dead, according to officials from the three countries. There was no immediate information on the nationality of the other victims.
More than a dozen survivors were taken to area hospitals due to heat stroke and exhaustion, including four minors.
At a press conference outside a hospital treating patients on Tuesday, Rebecca Clay Flores, a local Democratic official in Bexar County, Texas, sharply criticized Republican Governor Greg Abbott for a Monday night tweet that blamed Biden’s border policies for the incident. The emergency response also unfolded.
When asked about state officials’ response after the deaths of 51 immigrants in San Antonio, Texas, Bexar County Commissioner Rebecca Clay Flores said:
‘Vote for a Texas governor who cares about people. Period.’ pic.twitter.com/aGuEfO0DJ2
– NowThis (@nowthisnews) 29 June 2022
“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 a law enforcement official and a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official who briefed the investigation.
The migrants appeared to have recently crossed the border and were taken by truck to be taken to where they would work, according to a Mexican official, a CBP official and another US official, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss the matter.
Officials said authorities were alerted to the truck by an emergency 911 call from a bystander who was reported to seek help by an immigrant who escaped from the truck.
Fifty people died after they were left behind in a trailer truck in Texas yesterday. Tweet embed I spoke with Aaron Richlin Melnick of the American Immigration Council to find out more. https://t.co/XAA9ixhrvl pic.twitter.com/b6h8eVHLKt
– PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) June 28, 2022
Officials said the victims were found sprayed with a pungent substance, a practice some smugglers are known to use to mask the scent of human goods and avoid detection by dogs.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said Monday that someone working in a nearby building heard a scream for help, went out to investigate, found the trailer doors partially open and saw a number of bodies inside.
The Customs and Border Protection official and two other law enforcement officials said that surviving immigrants would likely be released to the United States to seek asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief. Reuters.
Some survivors of human smuggling in the past have been held by the US Marshals Service to testify as witnesses.
The deaths have highlighted the challenge of controlling migrant transit for Biden, a Democrat who took office and pledged to overturn some of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. Republicans criticized Biden’s border strategy ahead of the November congressional elections.
At least 51 people have died after being abandoned on a tractor-trailer without air conditioning in the sweltering Texas heat, one of the worst tragedies for migrants smuggled across the border from Mexico. https://t.co/ohSIVqWWgA pic.twitter.com/H9JfpLe96I
– Associated Press (AP) 29 June 2022
Interstate I-35 near where the truck was found runs through San Antonio from the Mexican border and is a popular smuggling lane due to the high volume of truck traffic, according to Jack Staton, a former senior official with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Investigation unit who retired in December.
In July 2017, 10 immigrants 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 the smuggling operation.
“It was only a matter of time before a tragedy like this happened again,” Staton said.