- 53 migrants died in smuggling attempt at US border
- Driver charged with human trafficking
- Driver had methamphetamine in his system, US lawmaker and official say
SAN ANTONIO, June 30 (Reuters) – The suspected driver of a truck carrying dozens of migrants who died in scorching heat during a smuggling attempt in Texas was believed to have been under the influence of methamphetamine when police caught him met, a U.S. lawmaker told Reuters, citing reports from law enforcement.
San Antonio police officers found Homero Zamorano Jr, a Texas native, hiding in the brush near the abandoned tractor-trailer on Monday, according to documents filed Thursday in federal court. Fifty-three migrants lost their lives, making it the deadliest human trafficking incident ever recorded in the United States.
U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district includes eastern San Antonio, told Reuters on Thursday that Zamorano had been found to have had methamphetamine, a potent synthetic drug, in his system.
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Cuellar said he was made aware of the matter by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but did not know how authorities made the decision. A CBP official, speaking on condition of anonymity, separately told Reuters that Zamorano had methamphetamine in his system.
Reuters was not immediately able to independently confirm accounts of the alleged drug use.
Zamorano, 45, appeared in federal court in San Antonio on Thursday where human trafficking charges against him were read. If found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty and up to $250,000 in fines, he was told.
He was accompanied by public defender José Gonzalez-Falla, who declined to comment on the matter. US Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Chestney said Zamorano would be held until his next hearing on July 6.
Officials described finding the rear door of the trailer ajar with bodies piled inside that were hot to the touch. In the nearby brush, officers discovered other victims, some deceased. They found Zamorano hiding near the victims and escorted him to a local hospital for medical evaluation, prosecutors said. Mexican officials said he tried to impersonate one of the survivors.
‘WHERE ARE YOU?’
The truck was carrying migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and was found in a desolate industrial area near a highway on the outskirts of the US-Mexico border.
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.
Prosecutors allege Zamorano conspired with 28-year-old Christian Martinez, who was also charged with a human trafficking offense. Martinez sent a photo of a truckload manifest to Zamorano on Monday, who responded by saying, “I’m going to the same place,” a federal investigator wrote in a court filing on Wednesday.
Martinez repeatedly messaged Zamorano in the hours that followed but received no response, wrote Nestor Canales, a special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Investigations Division. Martinez sent messages such as “Call me bro” and “Wya bro,” meaning “where you are,” Canales wrote.
A confidential ICE and Texas police informant spoke to Martinez after the incident, Canales wrote. Martinez told the informant, “The driver did not know that the air conditioning unit had stopped working and was the reason the individuals died,” Canales added.
Reuters could not reach Martinez for comment. Martinez, who is in official custody, made a first appearance in court in the Eastern District of Texas on Wednesday.
In addition to 27 Mexicans, the victims included 14 Hondurans, eight Guatemalans and two Salvadorans, Mexican and Guatemalan officials said. Others, including minors, remain hospitalized.
A spokeswoman for the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry told Reuters it was unclear whether two of the Guatemalans identified on Thursday had died on Monday or at a later date.
Among the dead were Pascual Melvin Guachiac, 13, and Juan Wilmer Tulul, 14, both from Guatemala, the country’s foreign ministry wrote on Twitter.
The two were cousins who left home two weeks ago to escape poverty, Guatemalan media quoted Guachiac’s mother as saying. Read more
Among the victims was also Yazmin Nayarith Bueso, who left Honduras almost a month ago. Her brother said she had been out of work for a year. “She searched and searched and found nothing, and became desperate,” Alejandro Bueso told a Honduran television program on Thursday.
Officials believe the migrants boarded the truck on the US side of the border with Mexico.
Surveillance photographs captured the truck passing through a border checkpoint in Laredo, Texas at 2:50 p.m. CT (1950 GMT) on Monday, before the migrant passengers boarded.
Cuellar, the Texas lawmaker, said the migrants likely crossed the border and went to a “hiding place” before being picked up by the trailer and passing through the Encinal checkpoint. They likely then drove to San Antonio and encountered mechanical issues that left them in the back of the truck with no air conditioning or ventilation, Cuellar said.
Another truck carrying migrants bound for San Antonio escaped the Encinal checkpoint on Thursday, crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer after a chase and killed four people on board, according to Mexican authorities. Read more
Two other men believed to be involved in Monday’s incident, Mexican nationals Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, were charged in US federal court on Tuesday with possession of firearms while that they were residing in the country illegally. A preliminary hearing for the couple is scheduled for Friday.
D’Luna-Mendez’s attorney, Michael McCrum, said his client is a 21-year-old carpenter who has lived in the United States since childhood and had “nothing to do” with the tragedy. McCrum said he believed the other man charged was his client’s father.
Charging documents in the case indicated that the lorry’s registration was tracked to the men’s address. “They’re arresting everyone they can,” McCrum said.
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Reporting by Jason Buch and Julio-Cesar Chavez in San Antonio, Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Kylie Madry in Mexico City Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Aurora Ellis and Leslie Adler
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