Home / US & World / Texas migrant deaths: Truck driver among 3 arrested as investigators work to ID dozens of victims

Texas migrant deaths: Truck driver among 3 arrested as investigators work to ID dozens of victims

Desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word of their loved ones as authorities began the grim task Tuesday of identifying 51 people who died after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer without air conditioning in the sweltering Texas heat. 

Highest death count ever from an apparent human smuggling operation, official says.

51 abandoned migrants dead inside tractor-trailer

U.S. authorities say at least 51 migrants are dead, after being abandoned inside a sweltering tractor-trailer near San Antonio, Texas. The horrific discovery could be the deadliest human trafficking case yet along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word of their loved ones as authorities began the grim task Tuesday of identifying 51 people who died after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer without air conditioning in the sweltering Texas heat.

The driver of the truck and two other people were arrested, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas told The Associated Press.

He said the truck had passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo, Texas, on Interstate 35. He 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.

The bodies were discovered Monday afternoon on the outskirts of San Antonio when a city worker heard a cry for help from the truck parked on a lonely back road and found the gruesome scene inside, Police Chief William McManus said. Temperatures in the area approached 38 C on Monday.

A man and woman walking on a dirt road past several parked cars on either side. The man has his arm around the woman's back.

Forty-six people were found dead at the scene, authorities said. Of the sixteen people taken to hospitals Monday with heat-related illnesses, five later died. Most of the dead were males.

Authorities said they were likely being transported as part of a smuggling operation.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking.”

Migrant deaths up last year

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 Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores.

Among the dead, 27 are believed to be of Mexican origin based on documents they were carrying, said Ruben Minutti, Mexico’s consul general in San Antonio. Several survivors remained in critical condition with injuries such as brain damage and internal bleeding, he said.

Two colourful crosses and a pair of candles stand on the ground in front of a line of train cars parked on the tracks.

At least seven of the dead were from Guatemala and two from Honduras, Roberto Velasco Alvarez, head of the North America department in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, said on Twitter.

The death count was the highest ever from an apparent smuggling attempt in the United States, according to Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.

South Texas has long been the busiest area for illegal border crossings. U.S. authorities discover trucks with migrants inside “pretty close” to daily, Larrabee said.

Migrants typically pay $8,000 to $10,000 US to be taken across the border and loaded into a tractor-trailer and driven to San Antonio, where they transfer to smaller vehicles for their final destinations across the United States, he said.

Conditions vary widely, including how much water passengers get and whether they are allowed to carry cellphones, Larrabee said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most were related to heat exposure.

Supreme Court decision on asylum expected soon

Migrants have been expelled more than two million times under a previously rarely used health order that the Donald Trump administration invoked in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began to rage. The Title 42 authority denies migrants a chance to seek asylum and be funnelled into the refugee system but encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences for getting caught.

Biden’s administration made plans to end Title 42 effective late May but a federal judge, in response to legal action launched by 24 states, blocked the plan. The Biden administration decision was made without sufficient consideration on the effects the move could have on public health and law enforcement, the Louisiana-based judge ruled.

Title 42 is one of two major surviving Trump-era policies to deter asylum at the border, along with the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico.”

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the spring on the program the Biden administration is trying to end, and is expected to render an opinion on the case as soon as Wednesday.

Jacob Soboroff’s new book, Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, takes us back into the detention centres where children were forcibly separated from their parents after crossing the U.S. border — and shines a light on what exactly officials knew about the psychological impact it would have on children.

MPP forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court. Activists argued that Mexico does not constitute a safe third country under immigration law, while opponents have argued that it outsources enforcement and therefore gives great leverage over U.S. policy to a foreign country.

With files from CBC News

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