At least 51 people died and several others remained hospitalized Tuesday after an abandoned tractor-trailer was found in San Antonio amid sweltering heat, in what officials are calling likely the nation’s deadliest smuggling incident on record.
Bexar County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores said the death toll rose to 51 people during a news conference Tuesday afternoon. Initially, 46 people were found dead in the trailer Monday and 16 people were hospitalized, authorities said.
Rubén Minutti Zanatta, Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio, said Tuesday that three of the hospitalized patients had died, leaving 13 still hospitalized, including a 16-year-old.
At least two of those 13 were in critical or grave condition, he said. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the victims had “families who were likely trying to find a better life.”
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” Nirenberg said. “This is a horror that surpasses anything we’ve experienced before.”
Here’s what we know at the moment:
Likely the deadliest smuggling incident in US history
The death count was the highest ever from a smuggling incident in the United States, according to Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
The trek migrants face to cross the southern U.S. border is inherently dangerous and hundreds of deaths reported each year. Smuggling is one of several ways migrants make their way into the U.S.
The International Organization for Migration, which is part of the United Nations, said 651 people died attempting to cross the U.S.- Mexico border in 2021 — the largest number since 2014.
Authorities encountered 239,416 migrants at the southwest border in May — 180,597 more than the same time last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The incident in San Antonio is one of several smuggling incidents along the southern U.S. border that has resulted in death over the years:
- July 23, 2017: Eight immigrants were found dead in a sweltering trailer at a San Antonio Walmart parking lot. Two others later died in hospitals. The driver was sentenced to life in prison.
- May 14, 2003: 19 migrants died inside an abandoned, unrefrigerated dairy truck while they traveled from South Texas to Houston. The truck driver was eventually sentenced to 34 years in federal prison.
- March 3, 2021: 13 suspected migrants were killed when an SUV crashed into a tractor-trailer in California.
- Aug. 4, 2021: 10 people died and 20 others were injured after a van carrying 29 suspected migrants crashed in southern Texas.
Fire chief: Passengers suffered from heat stroke, heat exhaustion
The truck was discovered after a city worker heard a cry for help from the truck shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said.
Officers found a body on the ground outside the trailer, and hours later, body bags were spread out on the ground outside the truck.
The passengers of the truck were suffering from heat stroke and heat exhaustion, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. There were no signs of water or working air conditioning in the truck.
Hood said the surviving passengers were too weak to help themselves out of the truck amid temperatures nearing 100 degrees Monday.
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Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran nationals among the victims
Twelve adults and four children were initially hospitalized, Hood said Monday. None of the people who died were children.
U.S. authorities did not immediately release additional details about the conditions of those injured or the home countries of the people found in the truck.
According to U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the victims that have been identified are from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. By Tuesday afternoon, medical examiners had potentially identified 34 of the victims, but they were taking additional steps, such as fingerprints, to confirm the identities, said Clay-Flores.
According to Zanatta, Mexico’s office of forensics believes that 27 of the dead are presumed to be Mexican nationals based on the documents they were carrying.
Zanatta said he has received 30 requests from Mexicans who are looking for relatives that disappeared, and believe their missing loved ones may be associated with the group found in the trailer.
Authorities confirmed that one of the surviving Mexicans from the trailer was José Luis Guzmán Vásquez, 32, from San Miguel Huautla in the southern state of Oaxaca, according to Aida Ruiz García, director of the Oaxacan Institute for Migrant Attention.
A cousin, Alejandro López, told Milenio television that the family worked in farming and construction and migrated because “we don’t have anything but weaving hats, palms and handicrafts.”
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Three people arrested; one hospitalized
The driver of the truck and two other people were arrested, according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas.
He said the truck had passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo, Texas, on Interstate 35. Cuellar didn’t know if migrants were inside the truck when it cleared the checkpoint.
Investigators traced the truck’s registration to a residence in San Antonio and detained two men from Mexico for possession of weapons, according to criminal complaints filed by the U.S. attorney’s office. The complaints did not make any specific allegations related to the deaths.
Authorities think the truck discovered Monday had mechanical problems when it was left next to a railroad track in an area of San Antonio surrounded by auto scrapyards that brush up against a busy freeway, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the top elected official in the county that includes San Antonio.
At least one of the suspects, an American is hospitalized, Zanatta said Tuesday.
Human traffickers ‘endanger and exploit to make a profit,’ Biden says
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security promised an investigation into what happened and the apparent smuggling operation. Homeland Security Investigation detained three people “believed to be part of the smuggling conspiracy,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed in a statement to USA TODAY. Their names have not been released, nor any information about the operation.
In a statement Tuesday, President Joe Biden called the “tragic loss of life” in San Antonio “horrifying and heartbreaking.”
“While we are still learning all the facts about what happened and the Department of Homeland Security has the lead for the investigation, initial reports are that this tragedy was caused by smugglers or human traffickers who have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit,” he said.
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Contributing: The Associated Press