Four people have been arrested and charged after 53 migrants died in what a Homeland Security Investigations agent called the deadliest human smuggling incident in US history.
The migrants were found in blistering conditions in a truck in San Antonio on Monday after an employee of a nearby building heard cries for help. More than a dozen people were found alive in the tractor-trailer and hospitalized with heat-related illness, according to San Antonio authorities.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, who is originally from Brownsville but lives in Pasadena, Texas, was arrested Wednesday on charges of alleged involvement in human trafficking resulting in death, according to a US Department of Justice press release. Zamorano has a long criminal record dating back to the 1990s, public records show.
Christian Martinez, 28, who was arrested Tuesday in Palestine, Texas, was charged with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented migrants resulting in death, the DOJ said.
If convicted, both Zamorano and Martinez could face life imprisonment or the death penalty. CNN has not been able to determine whether Zamorano or Martinez has a lawyer.
When police arrived on the scene Monday, they discovered multiple people in the tractor-trailer, some on the ground and in nearby undergrowth, “many of them dead and some incapacitated,” according to the DOJ release.
“SAPD officers were directed to the location of a person, later identified as Zamorano, who was hiding in the bushes after trying to go into hiding. Zamorano was being held by SAPD agents,” the release said.
Laredo Sector Border Patrol also provided Homeland Security Investigations agents with surveillance footage showing the tractor-trailer going through an immigration checkpoint. The driver was seen wearing a black striped shirt and hat.
“HSI agents confirmed that Zamorano matched the person in the surveillance footage and was wearing the same clothing,” the press release said.
An investigation revealed that there was communication between Zamorano and Martinez about the smuggling, the report said.
Two other individuals, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, have been charged with “possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the United States,” according to criminal charges filed Monday. According to the affidavit, authorities were able to locate the men after responding to the truck incident.
D’Luna-Mendez’s attorney said he will not comment on pending cases. CNN has contacted D’Luna-Bilbao’s attorney and has not heard back.
The refrigerated trailer had no visible working air conditioning and there was no sign of water inside, San Antonio fire chief Charles Hood told reporters Monday. It’s not clear how long the people in the truck had been dead, he said.
High temperatures Monday in the San Antonio area ranged from the high 90s to the low 100, 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.”
Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio Special Agent Craig Larrabee described it as “the worst human smuggling operation in the United States.”
“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,” Larrabee 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.
Business owners in the area where the trailer was found told CNN they were in shock.
“It was people, it was terrible,” 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.”