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 day after the discovery of a suffocating trailer in San Antonio where 51 migrants who died were left behind in the blistering heat, few identities of the victims have been made public, illustrating the challenges authorities face in tracking down people who cross the border clandestinely.
By Tuesday afternoon, medical examiners may have identified 34 of the victims, said Rebeca Clay-Flores, a Bexar County commissioner, which represents the district where the truck was left behind. Those identities had not yet been confirmed pending additional steps, such as fingerprinting, and she described it as a challenge with no timeline as to when the process could be completed.
“It’s a tedious, tedious, sad, difficult process,” she said.
The bodies were discovered Monday afternoon on the outskirts of San Antonio in what is believed to be the country’s deadliest smuggling episode on the US-Mexico border. More than a dozen people were taken to hospitals, including four children. Three people have been arrested.
The tragedy came at a time when huge numbers of migrants came to the United States, 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.
With little information about the victims, desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word about their loved ones.
According to Rubén Minutti, the Mexican consul general in San Antonio, 27 of the dead are said to be of Mexican descent, based on documents they had with them. Several survivors were injured and are in critical condition, he said. About 30 people had contacted the Mexican consulate looking for loved ones, officials said.
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. The Honduras foreign ministry said it was in the process of confirming the identities of four people who died in the truck carrying Honduran papers.
Eva Ferrufino, spokeswoman for the Honduras Department of Foreign Affairs, said her agency is working with the Honduras Consulate in South Texas to match names and fingerprints and full identifications.
The process is meticulous because false or stolen documents are among the pitfalls.
Mexico’s foreign minister on Tuesday identified two people who were hospitalized in San Antonio on Tuesday morning. But it turned out that one of the ID cards he shared on Twitter was stolen last year in the southern state of Chiapas.
Haneydi Antonio Guzman was safe and sound in a mountain community more than 1,300 miles away from San Antonio on Tuesday when she began receiving messages from family and friends. There’s no phone signal there, but she does have internet.
Journalists showed up at her parents’ home in Escuintla — the address on her ID that had been stolen and found in the truck — expecting to find her concerned relatives.
“That’s me on the ID, but I’m not the person who was in the trailer and they say he’s in the hospital,” she said.
“My relatives contacted me with concern and asked where I was,” said Ms. Antonio Guzman. “I told them I was fine, I was in my house and I clarified it on my… [Facebook page]†
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard deleted the original tweet identifying her without further comment. The other hospitalized victim that Mr. Ebrard identified on Tuesday was found to be correct.
In the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, city officials in San Miguel Huautla traveled to the community of José Luis Guzmán Vásquez late Tuesday to find out if his mother wanted to travel to San Antonio to be with him in the hospital.
Manuel Velasco López, town clerk of San Miguel Huautla, said another cousin had traveled with Guzmán Vásquez and was now considered missing.
Yet another cousin, Alejandro López, told Milenio television that their family worked in agriculture and construction and that they migrated because “we have nothing but to weave hats, palms and handicrafts.”
“Growing corn, wheat and beans is what we do in this region and that leads to many of our people emigrating and going to the United States,” he said.
Miguel Barbosa, the governor of the neighboring state of Puebla, started a battle for information in the town of Izucar de Matamoros on Tuesday when he said publicly that two of the dead came from there.
In the heavily-migrated town, everyone wondered if their friends or neighbors were among the dead found in the Texas truck. There were many rumors, but the city authorities said no deaths from Izucar had been confirmed.
But going to the US is such a tradition that most young people here at least consider it.
“All the young people are starting to think about going” [to the U.S.] once they turn 18,” said migrant activist Carmelo Castañeda, who works with the non-profit Casa del Migrante. “If there are no more visas, our people will continue to die.”
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.
Conditions vary widely, including how much water passengers are given and whether they are allowed to carry cell phones, Mr Larrabee said.
Authorities believe the truck discovered Monday had mechanical problems when it was left next to a railroad track in an area of San Antonio surrounded by junkyards running into a busy highway, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.
San Antonio has been a recurring scene of tragedy and despair in recent years involving migrants in trailers.
Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped in a truck parked at a San Antonio Walmart. In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a blistering truck southeast of the city. More than 50 migrants were found alive in a trailer in 2018, driven by a man who said he would be paid $3,000 and was sentenced to more than five years in prison.
Other tragedies occurred before migrants reached the US. In December, more than 50 people died when a trailer overturned on a highway in southern Mexico. In October, Mexican authorities reported that 652 migrants packed in six trailers had stopped at a military checkpoint near the border.
At a vigil held Tuesday night in the rain in a San Antonio park, many of the more than 50 in attendance expressed sadness, frustration and anger at the deaths and what they described as a broken immigration system.
Back in Puebla, farmer Juan Sánchez Carrillo fell ill when he heard the news of the deaths in Texas.
He narrowly escaped death himself when he and his friends fled from dozing migrant thieves in the mountains near Otay Mesa near San Diego. The criminals — who Mr. Sánchez Carrillo believes were in cahoots with smugglers who took him across the border — aimed their guns at the group of 35 migrants and threatened to kill them unless they were given $1,000 each.
“To the smugglers, we, the migrants, are not people,” said Mr Sánchez Carrillo. “We are nothing more than merchandise to them.”
This story was reported by the Associated Press. AP writers Juan Lozano in San Antonio, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Edgar H. Clemente in Villa Comaltitlan, Sonia D. Perez in Guatemala City and Marlon Gonzalez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras contributed to this report.