Two of the migrants who died in a sweltering tractor trailer in Texas had been promised “VIP entry” into the US, complete with pizza, beer and video games, it was revealed on Monday.
Pablo Ortega and Julio Lopez shelled out $13,000 and $12,000, respectively, to coyotes who promised them a luxury smuggling package for their journey across the border earlier this year — a significantly costlier fee than the average running rate of $2,000 to $7,000 a person.
The high cost, paid to avoid many of the life-threatening dangers migrants face when they cross the border, bought some comfort along the way but the two ended up dying on June 27 with 51 others after they were crammed into an 18-wheeler for the last leg of their journey.
“The air will run out,” Ortega’s mother had warned her son a few weeks before he was killed, fearful he’d end up in the very place that later became his deathbed.
So called “VIP” smuggling packages have become a popular offering for migrants seeking to cross the border illegally as increased security pushes coyotes to use more remote and dangerous ways to access the US, including 18-wheelers, Reuters reported.
Ortega, 20, left his home in Tlapacoyan, Mexico in mid-May so he could join his mother in Florida and earn enough money to build a home for him and his newly pregnant girlfriend.
Lopez, 32, set off on June 8 from Benito Juarez so he could get his youngest son, Tadeo, help for his autism.
“You won’t go through the desert … there won’t be any danger,” Adriana Gonzalez, Lopez’s wife, heard a smuggler tell her husband before he left.
“The trip you have is guaranteed, 100% safe.”
Relatives of both Ortega and Lopez said the men were told they would be traveling alone, or in small groups, and for a short time, the coyotes made good on their promises.
Ortega sent relatives photos and videos from a comfortable stash house where smugglers gave him access to pizza, Tecate beer and video games as they waited for the nearby Border Patrol presence to die down.
Once Lopez flew into Monterrey, smugglers drove him to Matamoros, a Mexican town across the border from Brownsville, Texas, and then took him by boat across the Rio Grande and into a car so he didn’t have to continue his journey on foot, which was part of the deal.
Lopez was soon turned back by Border Patrol agents but in mid-June, he crossed over successfully and sent his wife a video from a private hunting lodge where he stayed for about a week.
“It’s super cool,” Lopez says in the video, which showed a large, wooden home adorned with deer skulls and the American flag.
Ortega, who paid an additional $2,000 for a safer route across the Rio Grande and a spot in a truck’s sleeper compartment with just three others, didn’t make it on his first try either. But when his 20th birthday rolled around, he was at a safe house on Texas soil, celebrating with a mayonnaise sandwich.
“There’s only a little left [to go],” Ortega told his sister, referring to the last checkpoint he still needed to cross about 100 miles from the border.
On June 21, Lopez called his family one last time to tell them the coyotes would be confiscating his phone. He told his wife he was headed for another ranch where he’d stay for a few days before he’d be smuggled past the final checkpoint.
“Tell my children that I love them and if I am able to get through, everything will be different,” Lopez said, according to his wife.
The next day on June 22, Ortega started to get worried when he noticed how many migrants had arrived at the safehouse.
“We’re already a ton of people,” Ortega texted his mom.
That was the last time she spoke to him.
Five days later, an 18-wheeler cargo truck with Ortega and Lopez crammed deep inside cruised past a Border Patrol checkpoint on its way north to San Antonio.
By the time the truck reached San Antonio, the 60-plus migrants inside had begun to suffocate or die from heat stroke.
When first responders found the truck, they described finding “stakes of bodies” that were “hot to the touch.”
As news spread to Mexico of the horror inside the trailer, smugglers lied to Lopez’s family that he was still alive until his wife identified his remains through photographs about a week later.
Ortega’s mother tried to get in touch with the smugglers to ask if her son was okay but after more than 30 attempts, they blocked her number.
She eventually had to travel to San Antonio to identify his body, which was returned to his hometown where his baby will be born in December.
With Post wires