SAN ANTONIO/MEXICO CITY, June 29 (Reuters) – The suspected driver of a truck transporting dozens of migrants who died in sweltering heat during a smuggling attempt in Texas and an accused conspirator were charged in federal court on Wednesday US human trafficking offenses.
If convicted, each man faces a maximum sentence of life in prison or even the death penalty, the US Department of Justice has said in announcing charges stemming from the deadliest migrant smuggling incident on record. in the USA.
The death toll from the tragedy rose to 53 on Wednesday as local authorities reported that two other migrants initially hospitalized following their ordeal crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer truck had died.
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The truck, carrying migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, was discovered abandoned on Monday in a desolate industrial area near a highway on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, about 250 km north of the United States. Border of Mexico.
Temperatures in the area that day had soared to 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius), and authorities called to the scene found no water supplies or signs of working air conditioning at inside the cargo trailer.
Officials described finding the rear door of the trailer ajar with “piles of bodies” inside, many of which were hot to the touch. Other victims were discovered on the ground nearby, some dead, others disabled. Official accounts did not specify how the door opened.
According to radio dispatch audio from authorities who were first on the scene, no one inside the trailer was conscious and only about a dozen appeared to be breathing at first.
The truck’s alleged driver, Homero Zamorano Jr, 45, a Texas native who was arrested near the scene, has been charged in a criminal complaint for ‘alien trafficking resulting in death’, according to the department of Justice.
San Antonio police officers found Zamorano hiding in brush, according to federal prosecutors. Francisco Garduno, director of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, told a news conference on Wednesday that the driver “tried to impersonate one of the survivors” during his arrest.
A second suspect, Christian Martinez, 28, was arrested on Tuesday and charged with a single count of “criminal conspiracy to transport illegal aliens,” the justice ministry said in a statement. His nationality was not immediately revealed.
Federal prosecutors said Martinez was connected to the ill-fated smuggling operation through communications with Zamorano detected between the two men after a search by investigators of Zamorano’s cellphone.
Two other men suspected of being involved in the deadly smuggling incident, both Mexican nationals, were charged in US federal illegal immigrant court with firearms on Tuesday.
Authorities said the couple – Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez – were arrested when they were seen leaving a San Antonio residence listed on the state vehicle registration of Texas from the semi-trailer.
A federal judge in San Antonio ordered them to remain in custody to face a preliminary hearing scheduled for Friday.
MIGRANTS BOARD US SIDE TRUCK
Mexicans made up about half of those who perished. Eleven people – including minors – remain hospitalized. Besides 27 Mexicans, the victims included 14 Hondurans, seven Guatemalans and two Salvadorans, the Mexican government said. The nationality of some migrants in the truck remained unclear.
Most of the victims were men, with 13 women among the dead, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office said.
Dozens of families have been anxiously awaiting news of missing loved ones whose deaths they fear, even as new details of the smuggling operation have emerged. Read more
Surveillance photographs released by Mexican immigration officials captured the truck driving through a border checkpoint in Laredo, Texas, at 2:50 p.m. CT (1950 GMT) on Monday, before the migrant passengers boarded.
“The migrants were already on American soil,” before getting into the truck, Garduno told reporters during Wednesday’s briefing.
The tractor-trailer then drove with its seemingly undetected human cargo past two other US Customs and Border Protection surveillance cameras in Texas – first in the town of Encinal, 65 km north of Laredo, then to Cotulla, 30 miles further. North.
A source at the Mexican migration institute said that given the dynamics of smuggling, migrants likely crossed the border in small groups before being concentrated in a smuggling haven on the US side and then stuck in the semi-trailer to be moved further in the United States. .
The migrants were found sprayed with a pungent substance, officials said, in a known practice by some smugglers to mask the scent of human cargo and evade canine detection.
Between 6,000 and 6,800 trucks cross daily north through the international port of entry separating Nuevo Laredo, Mexico from Laredo, Texas, according to Mexican Customs data.
A spokeswoman for the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry, Karla Samayoa, said two Guatemalan girls who had been identified on social media as alleged victims of the truck smuggling tragedy in San Antonio had in fact drowned in the Rio Grande.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the Texas Department of Public Safety will begin setting up roadside checkpoints to investigate trucks traveling through the state.
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Reporting by Jason Buch in San Antonio and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Valentine Hilaire in Mexico City, Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Ted Hesson in Washington and Julio-Cesar Chavez in Eagle Pass, Texas and Randi Love in New York; Written by Dave Graham and Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Christopher Cushing
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