At least 50 people are dead after dozens of apparent migrants were abandoned inside an overheated tractor-trailer in a remote part of San Antonio, Texas, in the country’s deadliest and most gruesome human-trafficking incident in recent memory.
On Monday evening, a city worker alerted police after hearing a cry for help from the tractor-trailer, which had been left along an industrial road on the outskirts of the city, according to San Antonio police chief Bill McManus. When authorities arrived, at least 46 people were found dead at the scene, including three migrants whose bodies were found as far as 75 yards from the truck. The preliminary death toll rose to 50 when more victims died after being transported to nearby hospitals, according to law-enforcement officials. A total of 16 survivors, including four minors, had been found, treated at the scene, and taken to area hospitals. Authorities are still looking for victims who may have jumped from the overheated truck before it stopped near the intersection of Cassin Drive and Quintana Road.
Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, announced on Twitter that 22 Mexicans, seven Guatemalans, and two Hondurans were among the dead, but the nationalities of the remaining 19 victims have not yet been determined.
“None of these people were able to extricate themselves out of the truck, so they were still in there awaiting help when we arrived,” San Antonio fire chief Charles Hood said at a press conference. “Meaning just being too weak — weakened state to actually get out and help themselves.” Survivors showed clear signs of heat stroke and exhaustion after being pulled from the truck, which did not have working air conditioning on a day when outside temperatures reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Hood said the survivors were “hot to the touch.”
According to Bexar County judge Nelson Wolff, the operators of the truck “had just parked it on the side of the road, apparently had mechanical problems and left it there. The sheriff thinks it came across from Laredo,” a city that straddles with U.S.-Mexico border about 150 miles southwest of San Antonio.
A law-enforcement official who spoke with the Texas Tribune said that many of the victims had steak seasoning sprinkled on them in an apparent effort to cover the smell of people during the border crossing.
Three people at the scene were detained, though McManus said on Tuesday that their connection to the tragedy was unclear. The Department of Homeland Security’s investigative unit is now leading the inquiry into the deaths.
A record number of migrants have attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year — more than 239,000 migrants were apprehended in May alone.
Texas governor Greg Abbott quickly attempted to blame President Biden for the tragedy in a tweet on Monday night. Biden later released a statement in which he called the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking” and said that “exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy.”
“This incident underscores the need to go after the multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths,” Biden said.
San Antonio, a waypoint for undocumented migrants moving north, has experienced tragedies related to human smuggling before. In July 2017, San Antonio police found 39 undocumented migrants inside an unrefrigerated tractor-trailer. Ten people died from exposure to the heat, and the driver was sentenced in 2018 to life in prison without parole.
“The plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis, but tonight we are dealing with a horrific human tragedy,” San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg said on Monday.