Dead in San Antonio trailer: migrant death toll reaches 51

Saint Anthony

Fifty-one migrants are dead after they and others were found in blistering conditions inside a trailer in San Antonio, Rebeca Clay-Flores, District 1 Bexar County Commissioner, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The death toll includes migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, according to a federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The medical examiner’s office may have identified 34 of the 51 victims, Clay-Flores said. The county coroner has also asked for help from the medical examiners in neighboring provinces due to the high number of victims.

“This is the worst human smuggling in the United States. This shines a light on how dangerous people smuggling is,” said Craig Larrabee, Special Agent on duty for Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio.

“In the past, smuggling organizations were mom and dad. Now they are organized and connected to the cartels. So you have a criminal organization that has no regard for the safety of the migrants. They are treated as commodities rather than people,” he told CNN in a telephone interview.

The discovery came as US federal authorities launched what they described as an “unprecedented” operation to disrupt people-smuggling networks amid an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border.

Three people detained outside the trailer site are in police custody, although their connection to the situation is unclear, Police Chief Bill McManus said at a news conference Monday night.

Authorities were alerted to the scene just before 6 p.m., when a worker in a nearby building heard a cry for help, McManus said. The worker found a trailer with partially opened doors and saw dead people inside, he said.

Forty-eight people died on the spot and two died in hospitals, the federal law enforcement official told CNN on Tuesday, noting that the toll is tentative.

Sixteen people — 12 adults and four children — were taken to medical facilities alive and conscious, San Antonio fire chief Charles Hood said at Monday night’s news conference.

Patients were warm to the touch and suffered from heat stroke and exhaustion, Hood said. The refrigerator-trailer had no visible working air conditioning and there was no sign of water inside, he said. It’s not clear how long the people in the truck had been dead, the official said.

High temperatures in the San Antonio area ranged from the high 90s to the low 100 on Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

“None of these people were able to free themselves from the truck,” Hood said. “So they were still there, waiting for help, when we arrived…meaning they were just too weak — debilitated condition — to really get out and help themselves.”

At least 22 Mexicans and two Hondurans were in the truck, the federal law enforcement official said. The dead included seven Guatemalans and another Guatemalan was in critical condition in a hospital, the country’s secretary of state told CNN.

Law enforcement officers investigate the tractor-trailer on June 27, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.

President Joe Biden described the discovery as “horrifying and heartbreaking,” saying the dead underscored the need to go after criminal human trafficking.

“Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandeur around tragedy, and my administration will continue to do everything possible to prevent people smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people trying to enter the United States between ports of entry, said Biden.

The truck passed through a checkpoint north of Laredo, Texas, on Monday, said U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, who represents a district including Laredo and San Antonio, which are about 240 miles apart. Cuellar spoke with Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday and has been in contact with U.S. Border Patrol, he told CNN.

Mexico’s attorney general will investigate the dead, the country’s foreign minister said on Twitter.

The Honduran government is in contact with the Bexar County Forensic Office after two Hondurans were among the 51 victims found in the truck, Foreign Minister Enrique Reina tweeted on Tuesday

Reina said the consulate is working with authorities to help identify the victims.

“If the details and nationality of the victims are confirmed, the repatriation of the remains will be coordinated with their relatives,” Reina wrote.

“I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of life today and pray for those who are still fighting for their lives,” Mayorkas said on social media. “Far too many lives have been lost as individuals – including families, women and children – make this perilous journey.”

The 60 firefighters who were on the scene are undergoing a critical debriefing of the incident, Hood said.

“We’re not supposed to open a truck and see piles of corpses there. None of us come to work to figure that out,” the fire chief said.

One of the bodies was outside the trailer when firefighters arrived, Hood said.

Assistance would be provided to Mexican citizens, the Mexican consul general in San Antonio said on social media. At least two of the 16 survivors have been identified as Guatemalan, Mexico’s foreign minister said.

Business owners in the area where the trailer was found told CNN they were in shock.

It was people, it was horrible,” said Israel Martinez, 68, co-owner of USA Auto Parts. “We (migrants) come to this country for a better life and yesterday many of us reminded us that unfortunately some of us achieve it, but many others do not.”

US officials are working to better handle the flow of migrants to the US-Mexico border, Mayorkas told CNN earlier this month. Their operation builds on previous initiatives to track down smugglers on whom migrants often depend as they make their way to the border. Homeland Security also announced an effort last spring to work with federal partners to crack down on criminal smuggling organizations.

Migrants have faced other tragedies and challenges in recent years from enduring dangerous heat and terrain while trying to cross the US-Mexico border.

Police and other first responders are working at the scene where officials said dozens of people were found dead Monday in San Antonio.

Rescues across the US southern border are bigger than last fiscal year’s. More than 14,000 searches and rescues have taken place along the US’s southern border since October, according to the US Customs and Border Protection, including rescues from dangerous water crossings. That’s more than 12,833 search and rescue in fiscal year 2021, with more than three months to go.

In 2017, 10 people died and dozens were injured from heat-related illness after they were discovered in a tractor-trailer at a San Antonio Walmart. The truck driver was sentenced to life without parole in a federal prison.

In 2003, 18 victims, ranging from 7 to 91 years old, were found dead in the back of a truck with about 100 other people as temperatures rose above 100 degrees, researchers said. The driver in that case was initially sentenced to life in prison, but was again sentenced in 2011 to almost 34 years in prison.

The heat has not been the only danger to migrants crammed into vehicles. In March 2021, a truckload of 25 people collided with an SUV on a remote stretch of California’s Imperial Valley, killing 13 undocumented immigrants.