The alleged driver of a truckload of migrants that died in the sweltering Texas heat this week initially tried to pose as a victim to evade authorities and may have been under the influence of narcotics during the smuggling attempt.
These are some of the details coming out on Wednesday about a man who authorities say is a central figure in one of the deadliest human trafficking incidents in US history. With the deaths of two more migrants, the total number of fatalities rose to 53.
A US official and a Mexican official identified the driver as 45-year-old Homero Zamorano, a US citizen who was detained Monday in a field near where the tractor-trailer was discovered in an industrial area of San Antonio.
Zamorano was arrested by the San Antonio police and later hospitalized for unspecified medical treatment, according to the US official, who said the suspect initially pretended to be a migrant and appeared to be under the influence of narcotics.
Zamorano had not yet been charged with a crime on Wednesday afternoon. He is one of three men arrested in connection with the tragedy.
Two Mexican citizens residing illegally in the US – Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez – were charged with illegal possession of firearms after police traced the truck’s registration to an address in San Antonio and then checked the house. Reports were filed against them on Tuesday.
The trailer was discovered Monday night near a stretch of railroad track after a worker heard a cry for help. Rescuers found 46 dead migrants in the truck. Seven others died later.
Officials said there was no sign of water or working air conditioning in the vehicle, even as temperatures in San Antonio hovered around 100 degrees on Monday.
Smugglers often transport migrants who have already crossed the border north on foot in car trunks or tractor-trailers to avoid detection at the ubiquitous migrant checkpoints in southern Texas.
Mexican officials and U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said the truck passed a border police checkpoint northeast of Laredo on Interstate 35 on Monday. The passage of the truck was captured by security cameras.
Officials said the truck was filled with 67 migrants, and the dead included 27 Mexicans, 14 Hondurans, seven Guatemalans and two people from El Salvador.
According to court records and an interview with his sister, Zamorano has a long criminal history.
Records from the Texas Department of Corrections show that he was last sent to jail for about 15 months in 2016 and 2017 for jumping bail and failing to appear in court. Before that, he served nearly three years for domestic burglaries starting in 2000.
His sister, Tomasita Medina, said Zamorano is the eldest of three siblings who grew up in the border town of Brownsville, about 280 miles southeast of San Antonio.
At about age 14, Zamorano — whom relatives refer to as “Homer” — became involved in drugs and then dropped out of school around sixth grade, she said.
“That’s the reason we really never see him,” she said. “He’s always had a problem, a problem with drugs. That’s why he’s always in and out of our lives.”
She said Zamorano moved often: from the border to East Texas, South Florida, and finally Houston, after Medina and the rest of the family settled there in 1998. Zamorano occasionally worked as a handyman and stole to fund his drug use and pass the time. behind bars, said Medina.
The last time Medina saw her brother was a few months ago when he was visiting for a week to help their younger brother with yard work. He was his normal self, “goofy” and “always joking,” she said.
Medina said she was shocked to see news reports Wednesday that her brother had been arrested in connection with the deaths involving trailers. All she could think was that he got involved because of his drug addiction.
“Maybe they offered him drugs or money for drugs,” she said. “I don’t think he would have done it otherwise.”
Medina said the arrest was particularly painful because the family has roots in Mexico.
“I’m broken on both sides,” she said. “It’s difficult because we come from a family of immigrants. My father was born in Mexico, he grew up in Mexico.”
The tragedy isn’t the first time smugglers have packed a trailer full of migrants with deadly consequences.
In 2017, 10 people died after being left in a tractor-trailer outside a Walmart in San Antonio. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., was sentenced to life without parole.
In 2003, 19 migrants died after being left in a trailer at a truck stop south of San Antonio. The driver, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, has been convicted and is serving a nearly 34-year prison term.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Antonio, Winton from Los Angeles and Linthicum from Mexico City. Times staff writers Hamed Aleaziz in Healdsburg, California, and Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.