51 migrants die after trailer is abandoned in hot San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — Desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically searched for news of their loved ones as authorities began the grim task Tuesday of identifying 50 people who died after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer without air conditioning in the sweltering heat of Texas.

It was the worst tragedy to claim the lives of migrants smuggled across the border from Mexico.

The driver of the truck and two other people have been arrested, U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas told The Associated Press.

He said the truck passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo, Texas on Interstate 35. He did not know if any migrants were inside the truck when he crossed the checkpoint.

The bodies were discovered Monday afternoon on the outskirts of San Antonio when a city employee heard a call for help from the truck parked on a lonely back road and discovered the gruesome scene inside, a said Police Chief William McManus. A few hours later, body bags lay spread out on the ground.

More than a dozen people – their bodies warm to the touch – were taken to hospital, including four children.

Forty-six people were found dead at the scene, authorities said. Five other people later died after being taken to hospitals, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the county’s top elected official. Most of the dead were men, he said.

The death toll was the highest ever in a smuggling incident in the United States, according to Craig Larrabee, acting special agent for homeland security investigations in San Antonio.

“It’s a horror that surpasses anything we’ve experienced before,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “And it is unfortunately a preventable tragedy.”

President Joe Biden called the deaths “horrible and heartbreaking”.

“Exploiting vulnerable people for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my administration will continue to do everything possible to prevent human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who seek to enter the United States between ports of entry,” Biden said in a statement.

The countries of origin of all the migrants and the length of time they were left on the side of the road were not immediately known.

At least 22 were from Mexico, seven from Guatemala and two from Honduras, Roberto Velasco Álvarez, head of the North America department of Mexico’s foreign relations department, said on Twitter. Families contacted the Mexican consulate in San Antonio throughout the morning looking for their loved ones, an employee said.

Attempts to cross the US border from Mexico have claimed thousands of lives in both countries over the past decades.

US border officials are stopping migrants more often at the southern border than at any time in at least two decades. Migrants were arrested nearly 240,000 times in May, up a third from a year ago.

Comparisons with pre-pandemic levels are complicated because migrants deported under a public health authority known as Title 42 face no legal consequences, encouraging repeat attempts. Authorities say 25% of encounters in May involved people who had been arrested at least once in the previous year.

South Texas has long been the busiest area for illegal border crossings. Migrants cross vehicles through Border Patrol checkpoints to San Antonio, the nearest major city, where they disperse across the United States.

Wolff said Tuesday that authorities believe the truck had mechanical problems and had been abandoned. “They had just parked it on the side of the road,” he said.

Authorities were asking nearby counties to help with body counts, he said.

San Antonio has been a recurring scene of tragedy and despair in recent years involving migrants in tractor-trailers.

Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped in a truck parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a stuffy truck southeast of the city. More than 50 migrants were found alive in a trailer in 2018, driven by a man who said he was to be paid $3,000 and was sentenced to more than five years in prison.

“These drivers, they’re taking cartel money,” said State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat from San Antonio. “I’m sure these trucks often arrive at their destination successfully. Unfortunately, this has happened too often.

Other incidents occurred long before the migrants reached the US border. In December, more than 50 people died when a tractor-trailer full of migrants overturned on a highway in southern Mexico. In October, Mexican authorities reported finding 652 migrants crammed into six trailers near the US border. They were stopped at a military checkpoint.

The truck discovered Monday was next to a train track in an area of ​​San Antonio surrounded by scrap yards that brush against a busy freeway.

Of the sixteen people hospitalized with heat-related illnesses, four later died. At least four were in critical condition, hospitals said.

Those taken to hospital were warm to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, Fire Chief Charles Hood said.

“They were suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion,” Hood said. “It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible working air conditioning unit on that rig.”

Temperatures in San Antonio on Monday approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). Heat is a serious hazard, especially when temperatures rise sharply inside vehicles.

The big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid an increase in US border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas.

Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unpoliced ​​border. As the crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, migrants were driven through more perilous terrain and had to pay thousands of dollars more.

Some supporters have linked it to the border policies of the Biden administration. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, director of policy at the American Immigration Council, wrote that he had feared such a tragedy for months.

“With the border closed as tightly as it is today for migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed down increasingly dangerous routes,” he said. he writes on Twitter.

Migrants – mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – have been deported more than 2 million times under the pandemic-era rule in place since March 2020 that denies them the chance to seek asylum. The Biden administration planned to end the policy, but a federal judge in Louisiana blocked that move in May.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths at the Southwest border in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported the year before and the highest since started tracking in 1998. Most were related to heat exposure.

Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press reporters Ken Miller in Oklahoma City and Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed.

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