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Death toll rises to 53 after dozens of migrants found trapped in tractor trailer in San Antonio

A tractor trailer is seen surrounded by law enforcement on San Antonio's Quintana Road on June 27, 2022.
Joey Palacios
The scene on Quintana Road on San Antonio's Southwest side.

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At least 53 people are dead after dozens of migrants making their way to the U.S. were found trapped in a tractor trailer in Southwest San Antonio Monday evening, according to The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.

"Initially, 48 victims were recovered from the scene. As of this morning (Wednesday), a total of 53 bodies of victims are at the BCMEO. Forty of the victims are male and 13 are female. While verification through consular channels is pending, 37 of the victims have potential identifications," a statement from BCMEO said.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrand said earlier this week at least 22 were Mexican nationals, seven were from Guatemala, two were from Honduras, and the remaining people had not yet been identified.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said a worker at a nearby facility heard a person crying for help and found the trailer with numerous dead inside.

At a press conference at the scene Monday evening, San Antonino Fire Chief Charles Hood said at that point 16 people were found alive and transported to area hospitals, including four children. They were hot to the touch and suffering from heat exhaustion.

“No signs of water in the vehicle, it was a refrigerated tractor trailer, but there was no visible working AC unit on that rig,” Hood said.

Temperatures in San Antonio have reached more than 100 degrees in June.

Officials were unable to say where the truck originated or where it was going. The investigation is now under federal jurisdiction, being led by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Four men have been charged in connection with the deaths and the men will go before federal judges in the coming days.

45 year-old Homero Zamorano was found hiding at the scene and authorities said he was driving the truck the migrants died in. He faces life in prison or the death penalty.

Christian Martinez was arrested Tuesday and also faces life in prison for conspiracy.

Zamarano goes before a federal judge Thursday afternoon. Martinez is being transported to San Antonio but isn’t scheduled to go before a judge yet.

Two other men arrested at the house the semi-truck was registered to go before a judge Friday for being in the country illegally with firearms.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Monday evening retweeted the news from the conservative online newspaper, The Daily Wire, blaming the incident on President Joe Biden's border policies. Abbott has since announced that the state Department of Public Safety will again add additional truck inspection checkpoints, something that snarled supply chains earlier this year.

Abbott's challenger, Beto O'Rourke, in a tweet called for increased legal pathways to citizenship that don't incentivize such dangerous journeys.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization, issued a statement calling for responsible dialogue on immigration following this tragedy.

"The politics of President Trump and Governor Abbott to build the wall, deport them all, and Operation Lone Star have all been abysmal failures. Both Democrats and Republicans need to work together on a new bipartisan immigration bill," said Domingo García, LULAC's National President.

"The reforms must allow us to bring in legal guest workers and open legal avenues for people to come in to help our economy. These steps will prevent these refugees and immigrants from being thrown into the hands of human smugglers and coyotes who are willing to risk the lives of others for a dollar, as well as American employers who want cheap labor that can be exploited."

The Archbishop of San Antonio Gustavo Garcia-Siller tweeted “once again the lack of courage to deal with immigration is killing and destroying lives.” 

This is the second time in five years that San Antonio, which is about 150 miles from the Mexico border, has witnessed the deaths of people trapped inside an 18-wheeler. In 2017, ten migrants were found dead in a tractor trailer in a Walmart parking lot.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules
Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org