SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS (REUTERS) – Two Mexican nationals were charged in US federal court on Tuesday (June 28) in connection with a deadly human smuggling attempt in which at least 51 people died after being trapped inside a sweltering tractor-trailer truck in San Antonio, Texas.
The two Mexican defendants, who were arrested following Monday’s incident, were charged with possessing firearms while in the United States illegally, according to court documents and US authorities.
The deceased migrants, 39 men and 12 women, were discovered on the outskirts of the south Texas city, where temperatures swelled to a high of 103 Fahrenheit (39.4 deg C), in one of the deadliest human trafficking tragedies in recent history.
The authorities called to the scene found the truck parked next to railroad tracks, with bodies inside the vehicle and strewn over a couple of blocks, after the rear door of the trailer had been opened, a local law enforcement official told Reuters on Tuesday.
Local and US authorities said there were no signs of water and no visible working air conditioning inside the truck.
Officials said there were “stacks of bodies” and that some of the migrants were hot to the touch.
“It’s unspeakable,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said on MSNBC, noting that his community depends on migrants while there is a labour shortage. “It’s a tragedy beyond explanation.”
US President Joe Biden said in a Tuesday statement that the incident was “horrifying and heartbreaking”.
Calling out the multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling industry, Mr Biden said that “exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful”, adding that his administration was working to crack down on these networks.
Mr Biden has struggled with a record number of migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border since he took office in January 2021.
Some 22 Mexicans, seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans were identified among the dead, Mexico Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter on Tuesday. There was no information on the nationality of the other victims, Mexican officials said.
More than a dozen people were transported to hospitals for heat stroke and exhaustion, including four minors, the San Antonio Fire Department said.
At a bilingual press conference outside one of the hospitals treating patients on Tuesday, Ms Rebeca Clay-Flores, a Democratic local official in Bexar County, Texas, sharply criticised Republican Governor Greg Abbott for a Twitter post on Monday night that blamed Mr Biden’s border policies for the incident even as the emergency response unfolded.
“While bodies were still being removed, and others being taken to local hospitals, he chose to be heartless and point the finger,” Ms Clay-Flores said.
Mr Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The truck may have been carrying around 100 migrants, but the exact number remains unclear, according to a law enforcement official and US Customs and Border Protection official briefed on the investigation.
San Antonio’s police chief William McManus on Monday said a person who works in a nearby building heard a cry for help and came out to investigate. The worker found the trailer doors partially opened, looked inside and found a number of dead people.
It appeared that the migrants had recently crossed the US-Mexico border and were picked up by the truck to be taken to where they would work, said a Mexican official and two of the US officials.
The migrants were sprinkled in a pungent substance, said the two sources, speaking on condition of anonymity. In past incidents, smugglers have used different substances to disguise the smell of human cargo and evade canine detection.
The surviving migrants will likely be released into the US to pursue asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief, the authorities told Reuters.
The deaths once again highlight the challenge of controlling migrant crossings for Mr Biden, a Democrat who came into office pledging to reverse some of the hard-line immigration policies of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
Republicans have criticised Mr Biden’s border strategy ahead of the midterm congressional elections in November.
In July 2017, 10 migrants died after being transported in a tractor-trailer that was discovered by San Antonio police in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr, was sentenced the following year to life in prison for his role in the smuggling operation.