At least 51 people died and several others remained hospitalized Tuesday after an abandoned tractor-trailer was found in San Antonio amid sweltering heat, in what officials are likely calling the nation’s deadliest smuggling incident on record.
Bexar County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores said the death toll rose to 51 people during a news conference Tuesday afternoon. Initially, 46 people were found dead in the trailer Monday and 16 people were hospitalized, authorities said.
Several who were being treated at local hospitals later died of their injuries.
The driver of the truck and two other people were arrested, according to US Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. He said the truck had passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo, Texas, on Interstate 35. Cuellar didn’t know if migrants were inside the truck when it cleared the checkpoint.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the had victims “families who were likely trying to find a better life.”
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” Nirenberg said. “This is a horror that surpasses anything we’ve experienced before.”
Likely the deadliest smuggling incident in US history
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 Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
The trek migrants face to cross the southern US border is inherently dangerous and hundreds of deaths reported each year. Smuggling is one of several ways migrants make their way into the US
The International Organization for Migration, which is part of the United Nations, said 651 people died attempting to cross the US-Mexico border in 2021 — the largest number since 2014.
Authorities encountered 239,416 migrants at the southwest border in May — 180,597 more than the same time last year, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
The incident in San Antonio is one of several smuggling incidents along the southern US border that has resulted in death over the years:
- July 23, 2017: Eight immigrants were found dead in a sweltering trailer at a San Antonio Walmart parking lot. Two others later died in hospitals. The driver was sentenced to life in prison.
- May 14, 2003: 19 migrants died inside an abandoned, unrefrigerated dairy truck while they traveled from South Texas to Houston. The truck driver was eventually sentenced to 34 years in federal prison.
- March 3, 2021: 13 suspected migrants were killed when an SUV crashed into a tractor-trailer in California.
- Aug. 4, 2021: 10 people died and 20 others were injured after a van carrying 29 suspected migrants crashed in southern Texas.
The truck was discovered after a city worker heard a cry for help from the truck shortly before 6 pm Monday, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said.
Officers found a body on the ground outside the trailer, and hours later, body bags were spread out on the ground outside the truck.
The passengers of the truck were suffering from heat stroke and heat exhaustion, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. There were no signs of water or working air conditioning in the truck.
Hood said the surviving passengers were too weak to help themselves out of the truck amid temperatures nearing 100 degrees Monday.
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Twelve adults and four children were initially hospitalized, Hood said Monday. None of the people who died were children.
US authorities did not immediately release additional details about the conditions of those injured or the home countries of the people found in the truck.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon said on Twitter that among the victims were 22 Mexican nationals, seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans.
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The US Department of Homeland Security promised an investigation into what happened and the apparent smuggling operation. Homeland Security Investigation detained three people “believed to be part of the smuggling conspiracy,” US Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed in a statement to USA TODAY. Their names have not been released, nor any information about the operation.
“While we are still learning all the facts about what happened and the Department of Homeland Security has the lead for the investigation, initial reports are that this tragedy was caused by smugglers or human traffickers who have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit,” he said.
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Contributing: The Associated Press