Smugglers used a tractor-trailer that was a "death trap" for the people inside.
The tractor-trailer was sitting on the worn-out asphalt of Quintana Road, an area between train tracks and salvage yards that was full of trash. Its back doors were loose and wide open, and dead bodies lay in the road for a long way along the hot pavement.
At first, no one paid much attention to the truck on a Monday afternoon in industrial San Antonio, where it was parked. That was the plan. It was supposed to be one part of a huge, mostly hidden smuggling network of cars and trucks, guides, and stash houses used to bring tens of thousands of people into the U.S. illegally.
Current and former officials say that more and more migrants are hiding in large trucks. This is a way for criminal networks to make the most money and a sign of how desperate people are to get into the country by any means possible.
Along Quintana Road, something had gone wrong. The truck with Texas license plates was sitting still. The driver had run away on foot.
Soon, a nearby worker heard a cry for help and went over to see what was going on. He found the horrible cargo: at least 62 people from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras who had been smuggled into the country. Most of them were already dead from the heat. By Tuesday, at least 51 migrants would have been confirmed dead. Officials said this was one of the worst times for migrants to die in the United States in recent years.
Tom Homan, who was acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Trump administration, said, "I have been telling people for a year that a tragedy was going to happen because of the rise in truck smuggling." "They've been seeing a lot of tractor-trailers in California, Arizona, and Texas," he said. "They can get eight people in a van, twelve people in a pickup truck, or at least eighty people in a tractor-trailer."
Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico's foreign minister, said that at least 22 Mexicans, seven Guatemalans, and two Hondurans were among the people who died in San Antonio. He said that most of the migrants who died were from Mexico. Others had not yet been found.
Nelson Wolff, the leader of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, said, "We mourn for those 51 immigrants who came to us to breathe that fresh air but died in the State of Texas." Bexar County is where San Antonio is located. He thought it was wrong that the state government spent billions on National Guard troops and other border security measures instead of using the money to feed and house immigrants and catch people who try to cross the border illegally.
At least three people were taken into custody on Monday in connection with the case. They are now in the care of Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is looking into the deaths. Two of them, Juan Francisco D'Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D'Luna-Mendez, were stopped by police outside a San Antonio home where the truck was registered. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged them with having a handgun without a legal right to be in the country.
The driver of the truck was also taken into custody, but it was not clear if he had been charged.
In an interview with The New York Times, Chief William McManus of the San Antonio Police Department said, "We caught him leaving the scene." "He was found nearby in a field."
Chief McManus said the truck had Texas license plates and fit a pattern that officers in the city had seen: people who try to sneak people into the country use tractor-trailers. He said, "We've seen it a few times." "It's inherently dangerous because you can't get out once you're locked in," he said. "Once the cooling and refrigeration stop working, it's nothing but a death trap."
Officials say the truck didn't have a cooling system that worked, so the people inside were hot and sweaty as the temperature outside climbed above 100 degrees on Monday. Officials said that there was no water in the truck. A spokesman for Bexar County said that there were 39 men and 12 women among the dead. At least 11 survivors were still being treated for heatstroke in area hospitals, and some were in critical condition.
With a copy of a company's logo on the door, the chief said, the car looked like it was made to look like a truck with a real purpose. Officials in law enforcement said that doing this was a common move. Sheriff Eusevio Salinas of Zavala County, which is between the border and San Antonio, said, "It's not unusual for vehicles to be copied in this area." "They make copies of service trucks and cable trucks. FedEx and UPS drivers have told us that thieves are taking their magnetic stickers.
Cities like San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles have long been major hubs for migrants who came into the country through gateway cities like Laredo and were then sent to other cities.
The networks follow a pattern that U.S. border agents are used to seeing. Officials say that smugglers bring small groups of about five to ten people across the border and connect them with other members of the network on the U.S. side who pick them up and drive them in private cars to a staging area, also called a stash house. The houses could be on a ranch in a remote area, or they could be empty houses in border towns. When there are a lot of them, sometimes 80 or more, they are put on a truck and taken to big cities.
If a truck gets through the multiple checkpoints set up by the Border Patrol on the U.S. side of the border, it is unlikely to be stopped as it heads north unless the driver does something wrong.
In the last month, federal agents have found several groups of migrants hiding in tractor-trailers. They found 88 people in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and more than a dozen people hiding between pallets of scrap metal at a checkpoint outside of Falfurrias, Texas.
In May, two Mexican men were caught and charged with smuggling 124 people into the United States in a tractor-trailer. Prosecutors say that the truck was stopped at a checkpoint along Interstate 35. The driver had been paid to take them all the way to San Antonio.
But there were still a lot of questions about how the migrants who were found on Monday got to where they were.
Officials haven't said where the migrants crossed or how they got to the remote road in San Antonio. They also haven't said if it was a planned stop on their way or if they got there because their car broke down.
Rudy Martinez, who works as a tow truck driver near Quintana Road, said that he saw the 18-wheeler turn left onto the road before 5 p.m. on Monday. "I saw the guy on the road. "I gave him a wave," he said. "The driver wore a neon shirt like the guys who wave traffic through."
The worker went up to the truck at 5:51 p.m. and called 911, the chief said.
The nationalities of the people found in the truck showed a change in migration patterns that started during the pandemic. After years of going down, the number of Mexicans crossing the border is back up.
Since Title 42, a rule about public health, was put into place, most Mexicans and Central Americans who are caught by the U.S. Border Patrol are sent back to Mexico right away.
Because of this, many of them try over and over to sneak into the country until they finally do it. One out of every four migrants who were caught by agents last month had already been caught at least once in the past year.
On both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, this has helped grow an underground, criminal economy. Migrants are at the mercy of smuggling organizations, whose tentacles reach from Latin American villages deep into U.S. cities. They change hands and vehicles many times along the way.
In interviews over the past two years, migrants and people who help them have said that it is almost impossible to travel without paying the gangs that control large parts of the Mexican side of the border and smuggle people into the U.S.
Adriana Rocha, a member of the San Antonio City Council who represents the area where the migrants were found, said that it wasn't unusual for trucks carrying migrants to pass through. Ms. Rocha said that on a recent ride with the local police, she saw that the area's lack of people gave people who illegally transported migrants a place to hide.
Jack Staton, a former senior executive with Homeland Security Investigations, said that it was very unlikely that trucks carrying migrants would be found on the busy commercial corridor between Laredo and San Antonio. "When that many cars come every day, it's the best way to sneak people in," he said. "You look like any other business person."
Most families who cross the border turn themselves in to agents, but most of the migrants in commercial vehicles are single adults trying to avoid being caught.
"These are people who don't want to be caught or who don't want to turn themselves in. Mr. Staton, who retired from the Department of Homeland Security in December, said, "They want to get to work." "Covid hurt economies badly and put people out of work."
Mr. Homan worked at the border for 35 years. He said that the worst day of his life was when he was asked to lead an investigation in 2003 in Victoria, Texas, into a smuggling operation that killed 19 migrants in a trailer.
Mr. Homan said, "They were suffocating in a steel box that was 170 degrees."
"People were in their underwear," he said, because they had taken off all their clothes to try to cool down. "It was just like a horror movie."
People who work along Quintana Road said that since at least the 1990s, migrants have been dropped off in that remote area.
"When I first started working in the yards, a lot of people came from Mexico," said Rose Ann Iniguez, 53, the manager of Junk Yard Dogs auto salvage. "They had to eat and drink."
Ms. Iniguez was shocked to hear about the deaths, which happened just a few hundred yards from where she worked. "They are people. Why are they coming? I know. She said, "They have to live, too."
She said that she used to see a lot more people walking. Now, people who went through seemed to be more careful. She said, "I think they're scared." "When I see immigrants, they get into cars. Someone will come to get them."