Death toll at 53 after migrants found crammed in abandoned tractor-trailer; 4 men charged

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The death toll rose again Wednesday after officials found dozens of migrants dead in a tractor-trailer abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio amid high temperatures earlier this week.

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In a statement, officials with the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office said 53 people have died, 40 of which were males and 13 of which were females. Three people have been detained in connection with the ongoing investigation.

Update 8:51 p.m. EDT June 29: Criminal charges were filed Wednesday against four men prosecutors said were involved in the deaths of migrant discovered in an abandoned tractor-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio.

According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, was arrested and charged with one count of alien smuggling resulting in death. Zamorano is originally from Brownsville, Texas, but resides in Pasadena. If convicted, Zamorano faces up to life in prison or possibly the death penalty, the news release stated.

Also charged were Christian Martinez, 28, who was arrested on Tuesday in Palestine, Texas, prosecutors said. He is charged with one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death. If convicted, Martinez faces up to life in prison or could face the death penalty. 

Also arrested were Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, both citizens of Mexico. They made initial appearances in court on Monday. Both were charged with one count of possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the U.S. If convicted, both men face up to 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.

Update 1 p.m. EDT June 29: Officials said three people have been taken into custody in relation to Monday’s grisly discovery.

Francisco Garduno, chief of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, said Wednesday that the driver of the tractor-trailer was apprehended after trying to pretend he was one of the 67 migrants being transported, The Associated Press reported. He said that two other Mexican men have also been detained, according to the AP.

In court records obtained by CNN, officials charged Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao with “posession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the United States” in connection with the incident. It was not immediately clear if the men were among those reportedly detained earlier.

On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Ashley Hoff vowed that prosecutors would work with authorities “to identify and bring those who were responsible for this tragedy to justice.”

Update 12:05 p.m. EDT June 29: Officials in Bexar County confirmed to The Washington Post and KENS that two more migrants have died, raising the death toll to 53.

Among the dead were 40 males and 13 females, the Post reported. Officials initially said they found 46 people dead of heat-related illness after discovering the trailer on Monday, according to KENS.

In a statement released by the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, officials said that 37 of the victims had been tentatively identified as of Wednesday. They have not been publicly identified.

Authorities said they were working with officials in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Update 5:44 p.m. EDT June 28: U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) confirmed the driver’s arrest to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Cuellar also said that the truck passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo, Texas, at some point on its Interstate 35 journey, but he could not confirm if the migrants were inside the truck when it cleared the checkpoint.

The death toll among the truck’s occupants was also revised to 51 late Tuesday afternoon, the AP reported.

Update 12:10 p.m. EDT June 28: President Joe Biden vowed that his administration will “continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry” one day after authorities said they found dozens of suspected migrants dead in a tractor-trailer abandoned in South Texas.

In a statement, Biden called the incident “horrifying and heartbreaking” and shared prayers for those who died, their loved ones and those who survived.

“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,” the president said.

“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.”

>> Read the president’s full statement

Update 11:20 a.m. EDT June 28: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff confirmed to The Associated Press that 50 people found in an abandoned tractor-trailer in South Texas have died, confirming an earlier statement from Mexican officials.

Wolff told the AP that four people died after being taken to hospitals on Monday. Earlier, officials said 46 people had been found dead in the trailer, which had been left in the sweltering heat.

The people who died included 39 males and 11 females, Wolff said, according to the AP.

Authorities continue to investigate.

Update 8:55 a.m. EDT June 28: Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, said in a social media post on Tuesday that four more suspected migrants have died after being found in a tractor-trailer in South Texas on Monday night.

The victims include 22 Mexican nationals, seven people from Guatemala and two Hondurans, Ebrard said.

“We are in mourning,” he wrote, calling the incident a “huge tragedy.”

Mexican officials are investigating the incident in coordination with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Update 11:34 p.m. EDT June 27: San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the gruesome discovery “tragic.”

“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” Nirenberg said during a news conference late Monday.

“They had families... and were likely trying to find a better life. It’s nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” he added.

According to KSAT, authorities did not immediately confirm if the victims were migrants or their country of origin.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told the TV station that officers received a call just before 6 p.m. Monday from a person working near the 9600 block of Quintana Road who heard a cry for help. The worker told police he saw several bodies inside a tractor-trailer with its doors partially open as he approached the direction of the cry.

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said during the news conference that responding crews found “stacks of bodies” in the trailer, noting that several conscious victims were too weak to exit the vehicle.

Hood confirmed that the 46 fatalities included both men and women, ranging from teenagers to young adults, KSAT reported.

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion were the cause of death, he added.

Meanwhile, McManus confirmed during the news conference that three people have been taken into custody, but he did not elaborate on their connections to the tragedy. He also stated that federal Homeland Security Investigations would be taking over the investigation, the TV station reported.

Update 10:20 p.m. EDT June 27: According to WOAI-TV, news of the gruesome discovery spread quickly through the South Texas city.

Update 10:08 p.m. EDT June 27 : A U.S. official confirmed to The Associated Press just before 10 p.m. EDT Monday that another 15 victims found inside the truck were transported to area hospitals and that the scene is being treated as a presumed migrant smuggling attempt.

The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the information had not been authorized for public release.

Original report: San Antonio Police Department sources confirmed to KSAT that 16 additional people were transported to area hospitals for treatment of varying conditions, and also said the death toll is closer to 42.

At least five victims are in critical condition at one area hospital, WOAI-TV reported.

A Catholic Charities official told KSAT that the organization is working to help survivors, but they are unsure how many people will require assistance.

According to the AP, 10 migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of the South Texas city.