A city worker heard a cry for help from the truck on a lonely side road in San Antonio shortly before 6 p.m. Monday and discovered the horrific scene, Police Chief William McManus said. Hours later, body bags were scattered on the floor by the trailer, and the bodies remained inside as authorities responded to the disaster.
Forty-six people were found dead near the crime scene, authorities said, and two more people died later at a hospital, said Patti Tanner, a spokesman for Baptist Health System in San Antonio.
Many of the victims appeared to have been sprinkled with steak seasoning, officials said, perhaps in an attempt to cover up the smell of people as the smugglers transported them.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said those who died had “families who were probably trying to find a better life.”
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” Nirenberg said.
It is one of the deadliest of the tragedies that have claimed thousands of lives in recent decades as people tried to cross the border into the US from Mexico. 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 blistering truck southeast of San Antonio.
RELATED: How America’s Deadliest Smuggling Incident Unfolded in Victoria, Texas
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One that President Joe Biden was “watching closely” the absolutely horrific and heartbreaking reports” from San Antonio. Jean-Pierre opposed some Republican lawmakers who blamed the government for the deaths.
“Our prayers are with those who have lost their lives tragically, their loved ones and those who are still fighting for their lives. We are also grateful for the swift work of the federal, state and local first responders,” said Jean-Pierre Tuesday.
The home countries of all the migrants and how long they were left on the side of the road were not immediately known.
Among them, 22 were from Mexico, seven from Guatemala and two from Honduras, Roberto Velasco Álvarez, head of the North America division of Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, said on Twitter.
I am updating Texas information provided by US authorities. 50 died. 22 Mexicans. 7 Guatemalans. 2 Hondurans. The others have yet to be identified. We are in mourning. Great tragedy. Mexico joins US investigations coordinated with DHS.
— Marcelo Ebrard (@m_ebrard) June 28, 2022
“Our condolences,” he tweeted. “All those responsible will be brought to justice.”
South Texas has long been the busiest area for illegal border crossings. Migrants drive vehicles through border checkpoints to San Antonio, the nearest major city, from where they spread across the United States.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the county’s top elected official, said on Tuesday that authorities believe the truck appeared to have come from Laredo, a border town more than 150 miles south.
“They had just parked it on the side of the road,” Wolff said. “Apparently he had mechanical problems and left it there. The sheriff thinks he was from Laredo.”
Officials tried to enlist help from neighboring provinces to help with the number of bodies, he said.
Other incidents occurred long before migrants reached the US border. In December, more than 50 people were killed when a trailer full of migrants rolled down a highway in southern Mexico. In October, Mexican authorities reported finding 652 migrants in six trailers near the US border. They were stopped at a military checkpoint.
SEE ALSO: Driver charged after truckload of migrants broke down in Jackson County
Officers arrived on the scene and found a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially opened gate to the trailer. Three people were detained, but it was unclear whether they were definitively linked to human trafficking, McManus said. The trailer was gone Tuesday morning, but access to the area where it was found remained blocked.
The truck was abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio, next to a railroad track in an area surrounded by junkyards that run into a busy highway.
Of the 16 taken to hospitals with heat-related illnesses, 12 were adults and four children, fire chief Charles Hood said. The patients were hot to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, he said.
“They were suffering from heat stroke and were exhausted,” Hood said. “It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no working AC unit on that rig.”
Those in the trailer were part of a suspected migrant smuggling attempt into the United States, and the investigation was being led by US Homeland Security Investigations, McManus said.
Big rigs emerged as a popular method of smuggling in the early 1990s, amid a wave of U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded frontier. When crossing the road became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks in the US, migrants were led through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Heat is a serious hazard, especially when the temperature inside vehicles can rise sharply. Weather in the San Antonio area was mostly cloudy Monday, but temperatures were approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some proponents linked it to the Biden administration’s border policies. 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 now to migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed on increasingly dangerous routes. Truck smuggling is a way up,” he wrote on Twitter.
Horrible. Just awful. I have feared such a tragedy for months. With the border closed as tightly as it is now to migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed down increasingly dangerous routes. The smuggling of trucks has increased significantly.
REST IN PEACE. https://t.co/1alsxJIME2
— Aaron Reichlin-Melnick (@ReichlinMelnick) June 28, 2022
Stephen Miller, a chief architect of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, said “People smugglers and traffickers are bad and bad” and that the government’s approach to border security is rewarding their actions.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican running for reelection, was blunt in a tweet about the Democratic president: “These deaths are on Biden. They are the result of his deadly open borders policy.”
At least 42 people found dead in migrant truck in Texas.
These dead are on Biden.
They are the result of his deadly open borders policy.
They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law. https://t.co/8KG3iAwlEk
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) June 28, 2022
Migrants – largely from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – have been displaced more than 2 million times under a pandemic rule in effect since March 2020 that deprives them of the opportunity to apply for asylum but encourages repeat attempts because there is no legal consequences of getting caught. People from other countries, especially Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia, are less likely to be subject to Title 42 authority because of the higher cost of sending them home, tense diplomatic relations and other considerations.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths at the southwestern border in the 12-month period ended Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported the previous year and the highest since it began tracking in 1998. Most have to do with heat exposure.
CBP has not released a death toll for this year, but said the border patrol conducted 14,278 “search-and-rescue missions” in a seven-month period through May, more than the 12,833 missions conducted during the previous 12-month period. and from 5,071 the year before.
Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press reporter Terry Wallace contributed from Dallas.
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