Truck with dead migrants passed through US checkpoint

SAN ANTONIO — A tractor-trailer that landed in San Antonio with more than 50 dead or dying migrants passed through a federal immigration checkpoint in the United States without being inspected, a top Mexican official said Wednesday.

The truck passed the Border Patrol-operated checkpoint shortly before 3 p.m. Monday as it drove north from the border area along Interstate 35, official Francisco Garduño Yáñez, the head of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, said in a news report. conference with images of the truck and driver at the checkpoint.

The Mexican official also said the rig had passed through a border patrol station in the town of Cotulla; that station doesn’t have a checkpoint on the highway.

The truck stopped about three hours later on a deserted road just off the highway, with the people inside, either already dead or struggling to stay alive.

A young girl managed to climb out and call for help.

“I didn’t get her name and didn’t think to ask where she was from,” said Roberto Quintero, who got on the truck and called 911. “She kept hanging on my arms and screaming, ‘Help me, help me,’ in Spanish.”

Officials said on Wednesday that at least 53 of the 64 people inside, men, women and some children who came from countries such as Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, died from the extreme heat inside the truck, which had no working refrigeration. system on a day with temperatures above 100 degrees. Several others were still being treated in local hospitals.

Governor Greg Abbott, citing the federal checkpoint’s failure to detect the people smuggled into the tractor-trailer, announced that he had ordered the Texas State Police to create their own checkpoints to inspect trucks. He didn’t say what those inspections would involve or what portion of the trucks would be stopped.

The governor also said police officers in Texas would step up their search for stash houses that hide migrants and so-called cloned vehicles, which are used by smugglers but are made to look legitimate. Officials have said the San Antonio truck was disguised that way.

Federal immigration officials have claimed they have been successful in trapping migrants seeking to enter the country illegally and have cited the use of audio and video surveillance and a network of vehicle checkpoints at the border and miles away.

But the fact that a tractor-trailer carrying dozens of migrants could escape detection underlined how difficult such a ban is, especially amid the seemingly endless stream of truck traffic up and down the commercial corridors connecting the United States and Mexico.

A spokeswoman for Homeland Security Investigations declined to comment on the way the tractor-trailer, which was fitted with Texas plates, smoothly passed a federal checkpoint in Encinal, Texas, about 40 miles from the border.

But current and former officials said most drivers pass without undergoing a thorough inspection, both because of the legal restrictions on police investigations and the sheer number of trucks. About 20,000 trucks pass through the Laredo to San Antonio corridor every day.

“We know vehicles will survive,” said Jack Staton, a former senior executive at Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, which also includes the Border Patrol.

“They don’t have the staff, resources and capabilities to check every truck,” he said. “They search if they suspect illegal activity. If they don’t, they let the vehicle go. They ensure that traffic gets moving.”

Head of Government Abbott’s announcement of the new checkpoints comes just over two months after he briefly introduced a similar strategy at international crossings, instructing state police to conduct vehicle security checks on all commercial trucks arriving from Mexico. The universal truck inspections caused grueling traffic and economic damage in both Mexico and Texas.

State police officers are not legally allowed to conduct universal vehicle inspections for concealed persons or other contraband, areas under the jurisdiction of the federal government, so the officers were looking for violations of vehicle safety regulations. The effort, in April, resulted in many unsafe trucks being taken off the road, but few, if any, discoveries of contraband or people smuggling.

Federal border agents are also restricted in the searches they conduct. “They must have suspicions or reasons to believe that there is illegal activity,” Staton said.

The Border Patrol operates more than 100 checkpoints, most along highways and minor roads 25-100 miles from the southern and northern borders.

As vehicles approach a checkpoint, officers ask only a few of them to stop, usually asking the occupants if they are U.S. citizens or residents to identify people who could potentially be deported. Agents are allowed to walk around the vehicles they stop to do a visual check. If suspected of illegal activity or alerted to possible illegal cargo by sniffer dogs, the agents send the vehicles to secondary inspection.

From fiscal years 2016 through 2020, the border patrol detained about 35,700 potentially removable people at checkpoints and made about 17,970 drug seizures, according to agency data.

Truckloads of migrants are known to pass through the checkpoint at Encinal. Last week, officers there began inspecting a tractor-trailer when the driver tried to flee. Dozens of migrants were found huddled after the vehicle crashed.

The appearance of the ill-fated truck in San Antonio on Monday initially failed to attract attention in the industrial area where it had stopped. But soon those who were in it struggled to get out.

Mr Quintero was finishing his day at a nearby trucking company when around 5:45pm a colleague came in and yelled for someone to call 911. Mr. Quintero came out and saw the tractor-trailer parked just outside the gate of the company.

At the truck he saw the girl of about 10 or 11 sitting on the sidewalk, stamping on the floor and screaming for help. The smell coming from the open doors of the truck was strong. He looked inside.

“All these people were laying in a pile like they were trying to get out,” he said in an interview. A man on the other side of the crowd coughed as if he couldn’t breathe and stood up briefly, but seemed too weak to pull over the bodies, he said.

A man in a black shirt, who Mr. Quintero said was the driver, emerged from the shoulder some distance from the truck and talked on his cell phone. Several colleagues of Mr. Quintero chased after him, but he disappeared in a field, Mr. Quintero.

San Antonio police said they have arrested a man identified as the driver in a field near the truck. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged the man, Homero Zamorano, 45, with one count of alien smuggling, resulting in death.

Prosecutors said they linked Mr Zamorano, who is originally from the border town of Brownsville, Texas, to surveillance video of the driver of the truck as it drove through a border patrol checkpoint. mr. Zamorano had communicated about the transport of the migrants with another man, Christian Martinez, 28, according to prosecutors Mr. Martinez charged with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death.

The charges against both men could lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Two other men with connections to the truck were charged Tuesday with weapons possession after being arrested Monday at a San Antonio residence. Nor is a legal resident of the United States.

Officials have said smugglers follow a well-worn pattern of bringing migrants into the country. Small groups cross the river on foot and are then taken to shelters often known as stash houses. When a large enough number is collected, they can be taken by car, van or large truck to major cities such as San Antonio, Los Angeles, Houston or Phoenix.

As they get further from the border, detection becomes more difficult.

It was not immediately clear where or when the people found in the truck in San Antonio had gotten on board. Mexican officials said during their press conference that the truck may have driven out of the Rio Grande Valley area of ​​Texas.

“Just because it went through a border checkpoint doesn’t mean it was full of aliens at the time,” said Jerry Robinette, a former special agent responsible for Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio. “We know it’s very common for aliens to be smuggled around the checkpoint and then marry a means of transport to take them further north.”

The border with Mexico and the criminal gangs that operate around it have been a focus of Republican politicians, even in distant states, who have blamed President Biden for the increasing number of people trying to cross.

This month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis asked the state Supreme Court to set up a statewide grand jury to investigate whether families, local governments and criminal organizations colluded to transport migrants to Florida. On Wednesday, the court granted his request.

In Texas, Mr. Abbott has poured police resources and billions of dollars of state money into disrupting smuggling networks and has taken credit for helping to detain hundreds of thousands of migrants along with large amounts of drugs. But the effort has not reduced the total number of crossings.

The border town of Eagle Pass, where Mr. Abbott held his press conference on Wednesday, was a particular focus of the governor’s efforts. For months, concertina wire has lined the banks of the Rio Grande in parts of the city, and National Guard troops have watched the shores.

Nevertheless, the Eagle Pass area had become the prime location in the United States for illegal crossings from Mexico by June.

Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City. Eileen Sullivan also contributed reporting.

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