The suspected driver of a truck packed with dozens of migrants who died in sweltering heat during a smuggling attempt in Texas this week was charged in U.S. federal court on Wednesday with a single count of migrant smuggling resulting in death.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, a Texas native, was arrested on Monday near the gruesome scene after he tried to pose as a survivor of the tragedy, which left 53 migrants dead and ranks as the greatest loss of life ever from a single human-trafficking incident in the United States.
If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison or possibly the death penalty, the U.S. Justice Department said in announcing the charge.
The bodies were discovered Monday afternoon on the outskirts of San Antonio in an abandoned tractor-trailer. Authorities think the truck had mechanical problems when it was left next to a railroad track surrounded by auto scrapyards that brush up against a busy freeway, said Judge Nelson Wolff of Bexar County, the district in Texas where the truck was left.
According to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, 40 of the victims were male and 13 were female.
Officials had potential identifications on 37 of the victims as of Wednesday morning, pending verification with authorities in other countries.
“It’s a tedious, tedious, sad, difficult process,” said Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores.
Few identities of the victims have been made public so far, with authorities facing challenges in tracing people who cross borders clandestinely.
Went through U.S. checkpoint
Victims have been found with no identification documents at all and in one case a stolen ID. Remote villages lack phone service to reach family members and determine the whereabouts of missing migrants. Fingerprint data has to be shared and matched by different governments.
More than a dozen people were taken to hospitals, including four children. Three people have been arrested.
The truck, which was registered in Alamo, Texas, but had fake plates and logos, was carrying 67 migrants, Francisco Garduno, chief of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, said Wednesday.
While it’s not clear when or where the migrants boarded the truck bound for San Antonio, Homeland Security investigators believe it was on U.S. soil, near or in Laredo, Texas, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar told The Associated Press.
The truck went through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo on Interstate 35 on Monday, Cuellar and Mexican officials confirmed.
Officials in Mexico also released a surveillance photo showing the driver smiling at the checkpoint during the more than two-hour trip to San Antonio.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that state troopers would set up additional truck checkpoints on highways, but he did not say how many.
In April, Abbott gridlocked the 1,900-kilometre Texas border for a week by requiring every truck entering the state to undergo additional inspections as part of his ongoing fight with the Biden administration over immigration policy.
Deceased come from at least 4 countries
Among the dead were 27 people from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador, he said. The country of origin for one of the victims is not known, Garduno said.
With little information about the victims, desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word of their loved ones.
Several survivors were in critical condition with injuries such as brain damage and internal bleeding, according to Ruben Minutti, the Mexico consul general in San Antonio.
Guatemala’s foreign ministry said late Tuesday that it had confirmed two hospitalized Guatemalans and was working to identify three possible Guatemalans among the dead. Honduras’s foreign relations ministry said it was trying to confirm the identities of four of the dead who were carrying Honduran papers.
Eva Ferrufino, a spokesperson for Honduras’s Foreign Ministry, said her agency was working with the Honduras consulate in south Texas to match names and fingerprints and complete identifications.
The process is painstaking because among the pitfalls are fake or stolen documents.
Migrants typically pay $8,000 to $10,000 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, said Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
Asylum processes currently in limbo
The tragedy occurred at a time when huge numbers of migrants have been coming to the U.S., many of them taking perilous risks to cross swift rivers and canals and scorching desert landscapes. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.
Migrants have been expelled more than two million times overall under a health order that the Trump administration invoked in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began to rage.
The Title 42 authority denies migrants a chance to seek asylum and be funnelled into the refugee system but encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences for getting caught.
An attempt by the Biden administration to end Title 42 in May was blocked by the courts after legal action was launched by 24 states opposed to the plan.
Title 42 is one of two major surviving Trump-era policies to deter asylum at the border, along with the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico.” The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the spring on the program the Biden administration is trying to end, and is expected to render an opinion on the case any day now.