AP

Toll now at 53 in San Antonio as families wait for answers

Jun 29, 2022, 10:00 PM | Updated: Jun 30, 2022, 10:06 am

Mourners pay their respects at a makeshift memorial at the site where officials found dozens of peo...

Mourners pay their respects at a makeshift memorial at the site where officials found dozens of people dead in an abandoned semitrailer containing suspected migrants, Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — In the chaotic minutes after dozens of migrants were found dead inside a tractor-trailer sweltering under the Texas sun, the driver tried to slip away by pretending to be one of the survivors, a Mexican immigration official said Wednesday.

The American truck driver, along with another U.S. citizen and two other men, remained in custody as the investigation continued into the tragedy that killed 53 people in the nation’s deadliest smuggling episode on the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal prosecutors said two of the suspects, including the driver, face charges that carry a potential sentence of life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.

Two more people died Wednesday as the death toll slowly climbed since the discovery of 46 bodies Monday at the scene near auto salvage yards on the edge of San Antonio.

The truck had been packed with 67 people, and the dead included 27 from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador, said Francisco Garduño, chief of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute.

Officials had potential identifications on 37 of the victims as of Wednesday, pending verification with authorities in other countries, according to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office. Forty of the victims were male, it said.

Identifying the dead has been challenging because some were found without identification documents and in one case a stolen ID. Remote villages where some of the migrants came from in Mexico and Central America have no phone service to reach family members and fingerprint data has to be shared and matched by the governments involved.

Javier Flores López’s family was waiting to find out whether he was on the truck. He had returned home to see his wife and three small children in southern Mexico and was going back to Ohio where his father and a brother live and he worked in construction. He is now among the missing and his cousin, José Luis Vásquez Guzmán, is hospitalized in San Antonio, the family said.

The tragedy occurred at a time when huge numbers of migrants have been coming to the U.S., many of them taking perilous risks to cross swift rivers and canals and scorching desert landscapes. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.

While it’s not clear when or where the migrants boarded the truck bound for San Antonio, Homeland Security investigators believe it was on U.S. soil, near or in Laredo, Texas, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar told The Associated Press.

The truck went through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo on Interstate 35 on Monday, Cuellar and Mexican officials confirmed. It was registered in Alamo, Texas, but had fake plates and logos, Garduño said.

Officials in Mexico also released a surveillance photo showing the driver smiling at the checkpoint during the more than two-hour trip to San Antonio.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that state troopers would set up additional truck checkpoints on highways, but he did not say how many. In April, Abbott gridlocked the 1,200-mile Texas border for a week by requiring every truck entering the state to underdo additional inspections as part of his ongoing fight with the Biden administration over immigration policy.

Authorities were looking into whether the truck had mechanical problems when it was left next to a railroad track. The driver was apprehended after trying to disguise himself as one of the migrants, Garduño said.

Federal prosecutors identified the driver as Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, who was charged with smuggling resulting in death. Zamorano lives in suburban Houston and is originally from the Texas border city of Brownsville, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio.

He faces the most serious charges along with Christian Martinez, 28, who is accused of conspiracy and allegedly communicated with Zamorano about transporting the migrants.

Martinez was arrested in East Texas and will be transported to San Antonio. Zamorano was scheduled to have his first court appearance Thursday. It was not immediately known if either suspect had an attorney.

Two other men who are not U.S. citizens were also arrested on charges of illegal weapons possession. Prosecutors say investigators found the men at a San Antonio address where the truck was registered.

Some of the more than a dozen people transported to hospitals were found suffering from brain damage and internal bleeding, according to Rubén Minutti, the Mexico consul general in San Antonio.

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

The death count from Monday’s tragedy in San Antonio was the highest ever from a smuggling attempt in the U.S., he said. Four years ago, 10 died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck parked at a San Antonio Walmart. In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of the city.

Temperatures in San Antonio on Monday approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), and those taken to the hospital were hot to the touch and dehydrated, authorities said.

It wouldn’t have taken long for the temperature inside the truck to become deadly, said Jennifer Vanos, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who has researched child deaths in hot vehicles.

The tractor-trailer likely would have been hot even before anyone got inside and because of the high humidity, lack of air flow and so many people inside, their sweat couldn’t evaporate to cool their bodies and they would have dehydrated quickly, she said.

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

Felicitos Garcia, who owns a grocery store in the remote community of San Miguel Huautla in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca, said the mother of Vásquez Guzmán, who was hospitalized in Texas, had gone to the state capital to learn more about her son’s condition and the whereabouts of his cousin, who is missing.

“Life is tough here,” Garcia said. “People survive by growing their own crops like corn, beans and wheat. Sometimes the land gives and sometimes it doesn’t when the rains arrive late. There is nothing in place for people to have other resources. People live one day to the next.”

Identifying the victims was painstaking because among the pitfalls were fake or stolen documents.

Mexico’s foreign affairs secretary identified two people Tuesday who were hospitalized in San Antonio. But it turned out one of the identification cards he shared on Twitter had been stolen last year in the southern state of Chiapas.

Haneydi Antonio Guzman, 23, was safe in a mountain community more than 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers) away from San Antonio when she began receiving messages from family and friends anxious over her fate.

“That’s me on the ID, but I am not the person that was in the trailer and they say is hospitalized,” Antonio Guzman said. “My relatives were contacting me worried, asking where I was.”

In some regions of Mexico, attempting to cross into the United States is a tradition that most youths in heavily migrant towns at least consider.

“All of the young people start to think about going (to the U.S.) as soon as they turn 18,” said migrant activist Carmelo Castañeda, who works with the nonprofit Casa del Migrante. “If there aren’t more visas, our people are going to keep dying.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

AP

A pail rests next to caution tape on a beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla., on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2...

Associated Press

Young girl killed when a hole she dug in the sand collapsed on a Florida beach, authorities said

A young girl died Tuesday when a deep hole she was digging collapsed on her at a south Florida beach, authorities said.

18 hours ago

A Gila monster is displayed at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Dec. 14, 2018....

MEAD GRUVER Associated Press

A Colorado man is dead after a pet Gila monster bite

A Colorado man has died after being bitten by his pet Gila monster in what would be a rare death if the creature's venom was the cause.

20 hours ago

Visitors stand at the closed gates leading to the Eiffel Tower, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024 in Paris....

OLEG CETINIC Associated Press

Eiffel Tower operator warns the landmark is closed as strike turns visitors away for a second day

A strike at the Eiffel Tower over poor financial management turned away visitors on Tuesday for the second consecutive day.

1 day ago

capitol one building...

KEN SWEET AP Business Writer

Capital One to buy Discover for $35 billion in deal that combines major US credit card companies

Capital One Financial is buying Discover Financial Services for $35 billion, in a deal that would bring together two of the nation's biggest lenders and credit card issuers.

2 days ago

An open-air double decker sightseeing bus stops on the slopes of Table Mountain, overlooking the ci...

GERALD IMRAY Associated Press

A ship carrying 19,000 cattle caused a big stink in the South African city of Cape Town

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — What stinks? Authorities in Cape Town launched an investigation Monday after a foul stench swept over the South African city. City officials inspected sewage facilities for leaks, and an environmental health team was activated before the source of the smell was discovered: a ship docked in the harbor carrying […]

2 days ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump holds gold Trump sneakers at Sneake...

MICHAEL R. SISAK Associated Press

Here’s a look inside Donald Trump’s $355 million civil fraud verdict as an appeals fight looms

On the witness stand last year, Donald Trump proclaimed: "I have a lot of cash." After Friday's eye-popping penalty in his New York civil fraud trial, he's going to need it.

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

Toll now at 53 in San Antonio as families wait for answers