Death toll in Texas smuggling tragedy rises to 53

The death toll rose to 53 on Wednesday in what is believed to be the country’s deadliest smuggling episode near the US-Mexico border.

The bodies were discovered Monday afternoon on the outskirts of San Antonio in an abandoned tractor-trailer. Authorities believe the truck had mechanical problems when it was left next to a railroad track surrounded by junkyards running into a busy highway, said Judge Nelson Wolff of Bexar County, the Texas district where the truck was left behind.

According to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, 40 of the victims were male and 13 were female.

Officials had possible identifications of 37 of the victims as of Wednesday morning, pending verification with authorities in other countries.

“It’s a tedious, tedious, sad, difficult process,” said Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores.

So far, few identities of the victims have been made public, and authorities face challenges in tracking down people clandestinely crossing the border.

Crosses and candles have been left where the tractor-trailer with migrants inside was discovered. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Victims were found without identity papers and in one case a stolen identity document. Remote villages have no telephone service to reach relatives and determine the whereabouts of missing migrants. Fingerprint data must be shared and matched by different governments.

More than a dozen people were taken to hospitals, including four children. Three people have been arrested.

The truck, which was registered in Alamo, Texas but had fake plates and logos, was carrying 67 migrants, Francisco Garduno, head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, said Wednesday.

The driver was arrested after trying to pretend to be one of the migrants, Garduno said. Two other Mexican men have also been arrested, he said.

Deceased come from at least 4 countries

The dead included 27 people from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador, he said. The country of origin of one of the victims is unknown, Garduno said.

With little information about the victims, desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word about their loved ones.

Danielle Lopez holds a cauldron of burning incense during Wednesday night’s vigil in San Antonio, Texas. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters)

According to Ruben Minutti, Mexican Consul General in San Antonio, several survivors were in critical condition with injuries such as brain damage and internal bleeding.

Guatemala’s foreign ministry said late Tuesday that it had confirmed two hospitalized Guatemalans and was working to identify three possible Guatemalans among the dead. Honduras’s foreign ministry said it was trying to confirm the identities of four of the dead who carried Honduran papers.

Eva Ferrufino, a spokesperson for the Honduras Department of Foreign Affairs, said her agency was working with the Honduras Consulate in South Texas to match names and fingerprints and complete identifications.

The process is meticulous because false or stolen documents are among the pitfalls.

Migrants typically pay $8,000 to $10,000 to be taken across the border and loaded into a tractor-trailer and driven to San Antonio, where they transfer to smaller vehicles for their final destinations in the United States, Craig Larrabee said. Acting Special Agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.

Asylum processes currently in limbo

The tragedy came at a time when huge numbers of migrants came to the US, many of them taking life-threatening risks crossing fast rivers and canals and scorching desert landscapes. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, a third more than a year ago.

Migrants have been evicted a total of more than two million times under a health order issued by the Trump administration in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began to rage. The Title 42 authority denies migrants the opportunity to apply for asylum and channel them into the refugee system, but encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences if caught.

An attempt by the Biden administration to end Title 42 in May was blocked by the courts after 24 states opposed to the plan took legal action.

Title 42 is one of the two major surviving Trump-era policies to deter asylum at the border, along with the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), more commonly known as “Stay in Mexico.” The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the spring about the program the Biden administration is seeking to end, and is expected to rule on the case every day.