At least nine immigrants died and 30 were hospitalized after authorities in San Antonio discovered an overheated tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot early Sunday morning in what the police chief called a “horrific” human trafficking crime.
Police found the truck after a store employee making the rounds late Saturday night was approached by someone from the truck asking for water, Police Chief William McManus said. The employee returned with the water and called the police, who arrived around midnight. They discovered eight bodies in the truck along with dozens of survivors, all of whom had heart rates of at least 130 beats per minute. One man died while receiving medical treatment.
Four of the survivors are juveniles ranging in age from 10 to 17, and others were in their 20s and 30s, said Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some identified themselves to investigators as Mexican nationals, Homan said.
“The truck was loaded with people,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. “They were very hot to the touch. So these people were in that trailer without any signs of any type of water, so you’re looking at a lot of heatstroke, a lot of dehydration.”
The eight men whose bodies were found in the truck are believed to have died from heat exposure and asphyxiation, a San Antonio police spokesman said in an email. Their bodies were taken to the Bexar County medical examiner’s office for autopsies.
The driver, 60-year-old James Mathew Bradley Jr. of Clearwater, Fla., is in custody and will be charged, the top federal prosecutor in the San Antonio area said in statements Sunday.
“The South Texas heat is punishing this time of year,” said Richard Durbin Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas. “These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters. Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus-degree heat.”
Temperatures in San Antonio reached 101 degrees Saturday and didn’t dip below 90 degrees until after 10 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. The truck’s trailer didn’t have a working air-conditioning system, Hood said.
The trailer, which had an Iowa license plate but no other markings, was parked on the side of the Walmart, and the investigation didn’t appear to be interfering with commerce Sunday, as customers came and went from the store.
The truck might have held as many as 100 people during the journey. Surveillance video showed that several vehicles had approached the trailer earlier in the night and picked up some of the migrants, McManus said. Others fled into the woods nearby, and officers searched for them on foot and by helicopter Sunday.
‘Not an isolated incident’
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said Sunday that the people in the truck were probably immigrants who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on foot and had been taken to a stash house before being put into the tractor-trailer to be transported farther north. The spokesman said that holding immigrants in the backs of trucks is a common form of human smuggling in the region and that the agency has had a number of similar cases in recent months.
“This is not an isolated incident; this happens quite frequently,” McManus said. “Fortunately, we came across this one. Fortunately, you know, there are people who survived.”
In the past decade, an average of 375 immigrants per year have died while crossing the southern border, according to an analysis of Border Patrol statistics.
While the total number of border deaths has remained steady in that period, more are occurring in Texas. In 2007, less than 40 percent of the 398 immigrant deaths were in the Border Patrol’s Texas-based sectors. Last year, about two-thirds of the 322 deaths occurred in the Lone Star State.
The increase follows a broader shift in illegal immigration patterns away from Arizona and Southern California, which were the busiest sectors in the mid-2000s, and toward the Rio Grande Valley.
In a 2003 incident believed to be the nation’s deadliest human smuggling case, 19 people died in an overheated truck traveling from South Texas to Houston.
Surviving immigrants testified that they took off their sweat-drenched clothes for relief and crowded around holes they punched in the truck so they could breathe. They also kicked out a signal light to try to get the attention of passing motorists. The truck’s refrigeration unit had been turned off.
Prosecutors said the driver heard the immigrants begging and screaming for their lives as they were succumbing to the stifling heat inside his truck but refused to free them.
The Border Patrol has reported at least four truck seizures this month in and around Laredo. On July 7, agents found 72 people crammed into a single truck “with no means of escape,” the agency said. They were from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador.
In April, George Stewart of Wheeler, Mich., was sentenced to nearly six years in prison after being stopped in Freer at a Border Patrol checkpoint. He was trying to smuggle 10 people into the United States in the back of a Penske rental truck.
This month in Houston, about a dozen immigrants being smuggled in a cargo truck were rescued after being left in the locked vehicle for roughly 12 hours in a strip mall parking lot. A police officer heard the immigrants, including a 16-year-old girl, banging on the walls.
“Thirty more minutes, and this could have been a dozen homicide cases,” Tom Berg, a Harris County prosecutor, told reporters about that case.
All of those immigrants were undocumented, and many of them were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, authorities said. Three people were arrested on human trafficking charges.
Authorities in Mexico have also made a number of discoveries of large numbers of people being trafficked in such vehicles in dangerous conditions over the years.
Last October, in Veracruz state, four migrants suffocated in a truck that was carrying 55 people, most of whom were from Guatemala. Many of the survivors were found to be severely dehydrated and had not had food or water for several days.
The migrants were locked in the back of a truck that was made to look as if it belonged to the Mexican mail service, according to immigration officials, who added that the migrants had paid about $930 apiece to be smuggled from Guatemala to the U.S. border.