Four people have been arrested and charged after the deaths of 53 migrants in what a Homeland Security investigations officer called the deadliest human trafficking incident in US history.
The migrants were found in sweltering conditions inside a tractor-trailer in San Antonio on Monday after an employee at a nearby building heard calls for help. More than a dozen people were found alive inside the tractor-trailer and hospitalized with heat-related conditions, according to San Antonio authorities.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, a Brownsville native but residing in Pasadena, Texas, was arrested on Wednesday on criminal charges related to an alleged involvement in human trafficking resulting in the death, according to a news release from the US Department of Justice. Zamorano has a lengthy criminal record dating back to the 1990s, according to public records.
Christian Martinez, 28, who was arrested Tuesday in Palestine, Texas, has been charged with one count of conspiring to transport undocumented migrants causing death, the DOJ said.
If convicted, Zamorano and Martinez face life in prison or the death penalty. CNN was unable to determine whether Zamorano or Martinez have an attorney.
When police arrived at the scene on Monday, they discovered several people inside the tractor-trailer, some on the ground and in nearby brush, “many of them dead and some incapacitated” , according to the DOJ statement.
“SAPD officers were taken to the location of an individual, later identified as Zamorano, who was observed hiding in the brush after attempting to flee. Zamorano was detained by SAPD agents,” the statement said.
The Laredo Sector Border Patrol also provided Homeland Security Investigations officers with surveillance footage showing the tractor-trailer passing through an immigration checkpoint, the statement said. The driver could be seen wearing a black striped shirt and hat.
“HSI officers confirmed that Zamorano matched the individual in the surveillance footage and was wearing the same clothing,” the statement said.
An investigation revealed that communications took place between Zamorano and Martinez regarding the smuggling event, according to the statement.
Two other individuals, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, were charged with “possession of a weapon by an alien unlawfully in the United States”, according to criminal complaints filed Monday. Authorities were able to locate the men after responding to the tractor-trailer incident, according to the affidavit.
D’Luna-Mendez’s attorney said he does not comment on ongoing cases. CNN contacted D’Luna-Bilbao’s attorney and did not hear back.
The refrigerated tractor-trailer had no visible air conditioning unit and there was no sign of water inside, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told reporters Monday. It’s unclear how long the people inside the truck had been dead, he said.
High temperatures Monday in the San Antonio area ranged from 90 to 100, according to the National Weather Service.
“None of these people were able to extricate themselves from the truck,” Hood said. “So they were still in there, waiting for help, when we arrived… which just means they were too weak – weakened state – to actually come out and help themselves.”
Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of San Antonio Homeland Security Investigations, described it as “the worst human trafficking event in the United States.”
“In the past, contraband organizations were mom and pop. Now they are organized and linked to the cartels. So you have a criminal organization that doesn’t care about the safety of migrants. They are treated like commodities rather than people,” Larrabee told CNN in a phone interview.
The discovery came as US federal authorities launched what they described as an “unprecedented” operation to disrupt smuggling networks amid an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border.
Business owners in the area where the trailer was found told CNN they were in shock.
“They were human beings, it was terrible,” said Israel Martinez, 68, co-owner of USA Auto Parts. “We (migrants) come to this country for a better life and yesterday we reminded many of us that unfortunately some of us make it but many others don’t.”