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U.S. charges driver & 3 others in deaths of 53 migrants found in tractor-trailer

It was the single deadliest migrant smuggling case in U.S. history, according to a Homeland Security official

Federal authorities announced on Wednesday that they had charged four men with human smuggling in the deaths of 53 migrants from Mexico and Central America who were found in a sweltering tractor-trailer in Southwest San Antonio on Monday, a gruesome discovery that has generated outrage in the United States and at least four other nations.

The driver of the tractor-trailer, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, was arrested Wednesday and charged with involvement in alien smuggling resulting in death. If convicted, he could face life in prison or even the death penalty.

Zamorano, who is from Brownsville but now lives in Pasadena, a Houston suburb, abandoned the 18-wheeler on a semirural road near Interstate Highway 35 and tried to flee, officials said. He was “observed hiding in the brush after attempting to abscond,” according to the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas.

A video taken at a federal immigration checkpoint near Laredo had recorded the driver of the truck as wearing a black striped shirt and a hat — Zamorano was wearing the same clothes when he was arrested by San Antonio police.

Reached by phone on Wednesday evening, Zamorano’s brother-in-law said he had no idea how Homero — who goes by Homer — was involved in the crime and had no interest in finding out.

“His life is really separate from ours,” the brother-in-law told The Texas Tribune. “I have no idea how he got involved in that. He would get lost for years and would come around occasionally. He basically raised himself.”

Zamorano’s sister, Tomasita Medina, told the Los Angeles Times that Zamorano was the oldest of three siblings who were raised in Brownsville but later lived in East Texas, South Florida and ultimately the Houston area, where Zamorano worked as a handyman, used drugs and got in trouble with the law. “He’s always had an issue, a problem with drugs,” she told the Times. “He’s always in and out of our lives because of that.”

Federal prosecutors have also charged three other men in connection with the crime: Christian Martinez, 28, who was arrested on Tuesday in Palestine, in East Texas, and two Mexican citizens, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, who were detained on Monday in San Antonio.

Federal officials said that 48 migrants died at the scene — including 22 people from Mexico, seven from Guatemala, and two from Honduras. Officials were still scrambling to identify the nationalities of 17 other people who died at the scene, they said. In addition to those 48, 16 other undocumented migrants were taken to hospitals, where 5 of them died.

Francisco Garduño Yañez, the head of Mexico’s national migration agency, gave slightly different numbers at a news conference on Wednesday. He said that 67 migrants were inside the trailer; federal prosecutors in San Antonio put the number at 64. Garduño said the victims included 27 Mexicans, 14 Hondurans, seven Guatemalans and two Salvadorans.

The gruesome crime and its sheer scale — 64 migrants huddled in a big rig, without water or air conditioning, in heat that reached 100 degrees on Monday — has staggered even veteran law enforcement officials who work along the U.S.-Mexico border.

No other smuggling attempt in the United States had ever resulted in so many deaths, according to Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.

Court documents revealed several connections among the four men charged. Martinez was arrested after the authorities executed a search warrant on Zamorano’s cellphone and discovered that the two men had been in communication over the smuggling. Martinez was charged in Tyler, in East Texas, with one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death. He will be taken to San Antonio for further proceedings, prosecutors said.

The two Mexican citizens who were arrested, D’Luna-Mendez and D’Luna-Bilbao, were detained in traffic stops as they drove away from a San Antonio residence linked to the registration for the tractor-trailer. A handgun was found in D’Luna-Bilboa’s truck, and other firearms were found at the residence. The two men, who had overstayed tourist visas and were in the country illegally, were charged with one count of possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the U.S., a crime that carries up to 10 years in prison.

Authorities in at least four countries in addition to the U.S. worked Wednesday to identify the victims begin the grim process of bringing their citizens’ bodies home.

Of the 53 dead, 40 were male and 13 were female, according to the Bexar County medical examiner’s office, which said it had “potential identifications” of 37 victims.

The deaths far exceeded the toll in two previous migrant smuggling tragedies. In 2017, 39 people were found in a tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio. Eight died in the truck, and two later at a hospital. The driver was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2003, 19 men, women and children died after being trapped for hours in a suffocating trailer that the driver abandoned in Victoria; the driver is now serving a 34-year prison sentence.

A law enforcement source told the San Antonio Express-News that Zamorano “was very high on meth when he was arrested nearby and had to be taken to the hospital.” Garduño, the Mexican migration chief, said the driver initially tried to pretend he was one of the migrants.

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Mexico’s government has mobilized to investigate the deaths and assist the victims’ families. Its federal migration agency announced Tuesday that it would pay to bring the bodies of its citizens back to their homes and cover funeral costs for the families. The country’s attorney general also announced that it has sent a team to investigate the deaths in cooperation with U.S. authorities.

The Mexican Embassy in the U.S. said it was coordinating with consular officials from Guatemala and Honduras to help the survivors and the victims’ families and aid U.S. officials with the criminal investigation. The countries also will form an “action group” to try to dismantle human smuggling organizations, the embassy said.

Meanwhile, details about the migrants’ harrowing journey inside the trailer have begun to surface from public officials and interviews with the survivors and their families.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, told The Associated Press that the tractor-trailer passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint outside of Laredo on I-35, but he didn’t know if the migrants were in the trailer when it went through the checkpoint.

At a Wednesday press conference, Gov. Greg Abbott said the tractor-trailer was not inspected at the checkpoint “because the Border Patrol does not have the resources to be able to inspect all of the trucks.” Abbott announced that the state will add new checkpoints near the border to inspect trucks coming from Mexico to try to spot those smuggling people.

Law enforcement officials said the smugglers covered the migrants with steak seasoning to disguise their smell. Border Patrol agents routinely use dogs to check vehicles passing through checkpoints near the border.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told The Washington Post that authorities believe the driver left the truck on the isolated road after it had mechanical problems. A worker from a nearby business found the migrants after hearing cries for help and called police.

Among the 11 survivors was José Luis Vásquez, a 31-year-old from a village in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, who had recently left the Mexican Army and was heading to the U.S. in search of a better life, Vásquez’s uncle told Reuters. Other media reports said his name is José Luis Vásquez Guzmán.

Vásquez was traveling with a cousin — whose fate remains unclear — and last contacted his family on June 19, more than a week before the tragedy, to tell them he had crossed the border and was in a safe house somewhere in Texas, Reuters reported.

Mexican officials said he was recovering in a San Antonio hospital.

In Guatemala, a woman named Esmeralda told the Prensa Libre newspaper that her sister was among the survivors. The newspaper didn’t name the woman who survived, but Esmeralda — whose full name wasn’t published — said her sister’s last WhatsApp message before the tragedy said that she was about to leave Laredo and her phone was going to be taken away, so she would call as soon as she could.

The next message she received about her sister was from one of the smugglers, she told the newspaper. The man told her that her sister was among the people inside the trailer discovered in San Antonio. After fearing that her sister was among the dead, Esmeralda finally got a call from her sister, who said she escaped and was OK, the newspaper reported, adding that Esmeralda didn’t know her sister’s condition.

Sewell Chan and Patrick Svitek contributed to this story.

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Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

Mourners add a prayer candle to a memorial at the site where dozens of migrants were found dead Monday in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio.