The number of migrants who died after apparently being abandoned in a sweltering tractor-trailer in Texas rose to at least 50 on Tuesday, in a suspected border-smuggling attempt now under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security.
Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter on Tuesday that 22 Mexican nationals, seven Guatemalan nationals and two Honduran nationals had been identified.
“We are in mourning,” Ebrard wrote in Spanish.
The trailer was discovered Monday evening in southwestern San Antonio after a worker heard a cry for help, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said. The worker opened the doors, found “a number of deceased individuals inside” and called police.
First responders found bodies piled on top of one another inside the trailer.
Sixteen survivors — 12 adults and four minors — were taken to hospitals, authorities said Monday. The survivors were too weak to exit the trailer on their own, said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood, who described their bodies as “hot to the touch.”
“They were suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion,” Hood said. He said there was no sign of water or a working air-conditioning unit in the vehicle.
Temperatures in San Antonio hovered around 100 degrees Monday.
McManus said three people were in custody in connection with the incident.
Judge Nelson Wolff, the top elected official in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that local authorities believe the truck came from Laredo, a border city 150 miles south.
“They had just parked it on the side of the road,” Wolff said. “Apparently they had mechanical problems and left it there.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One that President Biden, who is in Europe for G-7 and NATO summits, is “closely monitoring the absolutely horrific and heartbreaking reports” from San Antonio.
“Our prayers are with those who tragically lost their lives, their loved ones as well as those still fighting for their lives,” she said.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said at a news conference Tuesday that his country was ready to support the investigation. “I want to express my deepest condolences to the families of Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran migrants who died yesterday asphyxiated in a trailer,” he said.
López Obrador said he plans to talk about the incident and migrant conditions in general during a meeting in Washington next month with President Biden.
“This is bitter proof that we must continue to insist on supporting people so that they do not have to leave their villages to go look for life on the other side of the border,” he said.
Smuggling migrants in tractor-trailers has become a common practice along the Southwest border. It often has deadly consequences.
In 2003, 19 people died after they were abandoned in a trailer at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas. The driver, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, was convicted and is serving a sentence of nearly 34 years in prison.
In 2017, 10 people died after they were left in a tractor-trailer outside a Walmart in San Antonio. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Tuesday called for stiffened sentences for smugglers.
“It is inexcusable that innocent lives continue to be lost to migrant smuggling!” he said in Spanish on Twitter. “It is imperative that mechanisms are found to toughen sentences and that smuggling is a crime for which perpetrators can be extradited.”
The number of migrants relying on smugglers has exploded in recent decades amid tougher enforcement by U.S. and Mexican immigration authorities.
Migrants often pay as much as $10,000 to smuggling groups that are closely linked to drug traffickers.
Migrant advocates said the tragedy was evidence that harsher border policies have forced those trying to reach the U.S. to take greater risks.
“The Biden administration should see this heartbreaking tragedy for what it is: a clarion call to abandon deeply flawed and dangerous immigration policies,” said Wendy Young, the president of migrant advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense.
“This most recent tragedy and the disturbing rise in migrant deaths globally underscore the need to create safer pathways to protection for refugees.”
In recent years, U.S. border enforcement has targeted not only economic migrants seeking work but also asylum seekers in search of protection.
Title 42, which former President Trump invoked in 2020 on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19, allows border authorities to immediately expel migrants, even if they say they want to seek asylum in the U.S. Since it was put in place, the U.S. has expelled migrants nearly 2 million times.
The Biden administration sought to lift Title 42 this year, but its efforts were blocked by a judge after 24 states sued.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Antonio, Linthicum from Mexico City and Yee from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Richard Winton, Hamed Aleaziz and Cecilia Sánchez contributed to this report.