Desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word of their loved ones as authorities began the grim task Tuesday of identifying 51 people who died after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer without air conditioning in the sweltering Texas heat.
The driver of the truck and two other people were arrested, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas told The Associated Press.
He said the truck had passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo, Texas, on Interstate 35. He didn’t know if migrants were inside the truck when it cleared the checkpoint.
The bodies were discovered Monday afternoon on the outskirts of San Antonio when a city worker heard a cry for help from the truck parked on a lonely back road and found the gruesome scene inside, Police Chief William McManus said. Temperatures in the area approached 38 C on Monday.
Forty-six people were found dead at the scene, authorities said. Of the sixteen people taken to hospitals Monday with heat-related illnesses, five later died. Most of the dead were males.
Authorities said they were likely being transported as part of a smuggling operation.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking.”
The home countries of all of the migrants and how long they were abandoned on the side of the road were not immediately known.
At least 22 were from Mexico, seven from Guatemala and two from Honduras, Roberto Velasco Alvarez, head of the North America department in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, said on Twitter.
The death count was the highest ever from an apparent smuggling attempt in the United States, according to Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
South Texas has long been the busiest area for illegal border crossings. U.S. authorities discover trucks with migrants inside “pretty close” to daily, Larrabee said.
Migrants typically pay $8,000 to $10,000 US to be taken across the border and loaded into a tractor-trailer and driven to San Antonio, where they transfer to smaller vehicles for their final destinations across the United States, he said.
Conditions vary widely, including how much water passengers get and whether they are allowed to carry cellphones, Larrabee said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most were related to heat exposure.
Other tragedies have occurred long before migrants reached the U.S. border.
In December, more than 50 died when a semitrailer filled with migrants rolled over on a highway in southern Mexico. In October, Mexican authorities reported finding 652 migrants packed into six trailers near the U.S. border. They were stopped at a military checkpoint.
LISTEN | Reporter Jacob Soboroff on his book on Trump-era family separation policy:
The Current23:53Jacob Soboroff on families separated at U.S. border