Fifty-one people believed to be migrants have been declared dead after being found abandoned in the back of a tractor-trailer on a remote back road in rural San Antonio on Monday, according to Texas law enforcement officials.
The discovery is the worst instance of migrant deaths in recent history, and comes amid a rise in illegal migration into the U.S. across its southern border.
Forty-six of the victims were found dead at the scene, most of them still inside the vehicle, authorities said.
Sixteen others, including four children, were found alive and taken to hospitals with heat-related illnesses. Five of those patients have since died in hospital, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the county’s top elected official. Most of the dead were males, he said. None were believed to be children.
“They were suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion,” Fire Chief Charles Hood said Monday night. “It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible working AC unit on that rig.”
One young woman who was taken to hospital was unable to speak because of a tube placed by doctors when he visited her Monday night, said Antonio Fernandez, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in San Antonio.
He asked her two questions: if he could pray with her, and if she was from Guatemala. She nodded yes both times.
“She was weak,” he said.
The death count was the highest ever from a smuggling incident in the United States, according to Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Monday night.
A city worker at the scene was alerted to the situation by a cry for help Monday evening, Police Chief William McManus said. Officers arrived to find a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially opened gate to the trailer, he said.
The patients taken to hospital were hot to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, he said.
The driver of the truck and two other people were arrested, U.S. 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.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier Monday evening had said the death toll was at 42 people did not release any official statement through his office.
Instead, Abbott tweeted a news article about the discovery while blaming U.S. President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
“These deaths are on Biden,” the governor wrote. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
Biden called the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking.”
“Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my administration will continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry,” Biden said in a statement.
San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller denounced the “lack of courage to deal with immigration reform” on Twitter.
“Lord have mercy on them,” he wrote, referring to the victims.
The home countries of all of the migrants and how long they were abandoned 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 Alvarez, head of the North America department in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, said on Twitter. Families were reaching out to the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio throughout the morning looking for their loved ones, an employee there said.
The Mexican General Consulate in San Antonio said on Twitter that it would provide aid to any Mexicans involved in the incident.
Illegal border crossings have led to thousands of deaths over the past 20 years. Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of San Antonio.
The driver in the 2017 case, James Matthew Bradley, Jr., was sentenced the following year to life in prison for his role in the smuggling operation.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 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 are related to heat exposure.
The latest CBP figures show immigration arrests at the southern border in May rose to the highest levels ever recorded, with nearly 240,000 people detained that month.
While last year marked a new record with 1.73 million arrests, the agency is on track to surpass 2 million in the current fiscal year.
Big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Migrants typically pay $8,000 to $10,000 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, said Larrabee with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border. As crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., migrants were led through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Heat poses a serious danger, particularly when temperatures can rise severely inside vehicles. Weather in the San Antonio area was mostly cloudy Monday, but temperatures swelled to a high of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius) with high humidity.
—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters