3 arrested in connection to the deaths of 51 migrants found inside a semi-truck

Emilie Eaton

Houston Chronicle

Jun. 29—Federal authorities on Tuesday arrested three people in connection with a human-smuggling incident on San Antonio’s Southwest Side that left 51 migrants dead — making it one of the deadliest such episodes in recent history.

Homero Zamorano, 45, was arrested after officials say he abandoned the tractor-trailer in a desolate area near Lackland Air Force Base and fled the scene. Zamorano has addresses in Houston and the Rio Grande Valley.

“He was very high on meth when he was arrested nearby and had to be taken to the hospital,” a law enforcement officer said.

After arresting Zamorano, authorities traced the semi-truck to a home in the 100 block of Arnold Drive in South Bexar County. They put the house under surveillance, and saw two men — Juan Francisco D’Luna- Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez — leaving in a truck, the sources said.

When authorities stopped the truck, one of the men confessed to having a weapon in the vehicle. Officers obtained a search warrant and searched the Arnold Drive home.

The two men were arrested on suspicion of possessing firearms while in the country illegally. They were detained without bail after a brief hearing in federal court on Tuesday.

Zamorano may appear Wednesday in federal court on human-smuggling charges. He has a long criminal history.

Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio, said the death toll from Monday’s human-smuggling incident makes it “the worst one we’ve seen in the U.S.”

“The (human-smuggling) organizations are getting more violent — they don’t care about the people,” he said. “They don’t think of them as people. They think of them as commodities.”

The 51 migrants from Mexico and Central America were found in the abandoned tractor-trailer, which could fit around 100 people. Eleven other people who were rescued from the trailer and were hospitalized, including an adolescent boy who was in critical condition at University Hospital.

The dead were 39 men and 12 women. Twenty-two were from Mexico, seven from Guatemala and two from Honduras, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said. The rest are still being identified.

“We are devastated by the news,” said Cesar Espinosa, an immigrant advocate with FIEL Houston, an immigrant rights organization. “Unfortunately, this is not the first time and unfortunately it won’t be the last time that it happens as long as we don’t have a pathway for people to migrate safely into the U.S.”

A cloned truck?

Details continued to emerge Tuesday. The doomed migrants were covered in meat seasoning to mask their scent, law enforcement officials said, and were stuffed into a semi-truck had been”cloned” to look like a legitimate truck.

According to two law enforcement officials, the truck traveled from Laredo up Interstate 35 to San Antonio. With Interstate 10 running east to west and Interstate 35 south to north, San Antonio is a major crossroads for human smuggling.

The Volvo truck, a red tractor unit with a large white semi-trailer, was found around 5:50 p.m. Monday evening after nearby workers heard cries for help and walked over to the tractor trailer to investigate.

One person was outside the trailer lying on the ground. The workers opened the doors and discovered dozens of stacked bodies inside, officials said.

The truck, which was traced to a trucking company based in the border town of Alamo, had been cloned, its owners said. Human-smuggling groups and cartels often replicate legitimate vehicles to use in illegal border crossings — going so far as to create fake school buses with mannequins standing in as passengers.

The owners of Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting — Felipe Betancourt Sr. and his son, Felipe Jr. — said someone cloned their truck, with the same color and identifying numbers from the federal Department of Transportation and the Texas DOT. However, the cloned truck does not bear the Betancourt logo like their company vehicles.

“Ours is sitting right here,” Felipe Jr. said by phone. “My truck doesn’t have a window on the side like the one in San Antonio… That one in San Antonio is not our trailer.””

He said his father started the business in 2007 and bought the truck in 2020 He said their truck has been hauling grain from Harlingen to Progreso.

In other developments, many of the people found inside the truck were covered in steak seasoning, one law enforcement official said Tuesday, likely in an effort to disguise their scent as the smugglers were transporting them.

Timothy Tubbs, who retired as the deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Laredo, said smugglers commonly use seasonings to aid their smuggling operations.

“Dogs are trained for several things. Some are trained to smell money. Some are trained to smell narcotics, weapons, and some dogs are trained to smell human beings,” Tubbs said. “They will put seasoning on them to cover their scent so they can get through the Border Patrol checkpoint.”

Victims, survivors

Police were first called to the scene, on Quintana Road near Lackland Air Force Base — a desolate area marred by illegally dumped trash, with at least one salvage yard close by — around 5:50 p.m. on Monday.

First responders arrived around 6 p.m., opened the doors and discovered dozens of bodies inside.

“It was covered with bodies,” McManus said Tuesday. “It was like nothing anybody had ever seen before.”

Fire Chief Charles Hood said many of the survivors were suffering from heat stroke and heat exhaustion. He said they were “hot to the touch” and “too weak to get out and help themselves,” adding that it wasn’t clear how long they had been inside the tractor trailer.

Temperatures in San Antonio hovered close to 100 degrees Monday. Hood said the back of the rig was refrigerated, but no air-conditioning unit was visible when emergency personnel entered.

Paramedics used a 12-lead ECG, a standard tool EMTs use to screen patients for cardiac activity, but that no such activity was found among the 46 dead.

They were pronounced dead at the scene. Five more died in San Antonio hospitals Tuesday.

Alex Salgado with Fuerza Catracha, an outreach group for Hondurans in the United States, said Honduran consular officials are coming to San Antonio.

He attended a meeting of immigrant advocates and nonprofit leaders Tuesday, and said he was told that the dead were partly identified with documents they had on them, not DNA. There’s speculation that some of the individuals who were identified as Mexican may have had fake paperwork that falsely identified them as Mexican citizens.

“Some of those identified as Mexican could be from Honduras or elsewhere,” Salgado said.

Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, whose South Side precinct includes the area where the truck was found, said a 23-year-old woman from Guatemala being treated at University Hospital was in serious condition, and a teenage boy was there in critical condition.

Clay Flores said 34 of the bodies have been “potentially identified.” But she said the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Officer has been stretched thin by the tragedy.

“Because of the high number of victims from last night, we have reached out to neighboring counties for assistance from their medical examiner’s offices also,” Clay-Flores said.

Clay Flores advised those who feared that a loved one could have been on the tractor-trailer to call the Guatemalan consulate at 956-800-7351.

District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia, whose district covers the area where the migrants were found, said her staff is coordinating with local nonprofit and humanitarian groups to support the survivors and the victims’ families.

“Families did not know, or probably still do not know, if their loved ones are the ones who passed away,” Rocha Garcia said. “All they wanted was a better life. You can’t fault them for that.”

Border crossings

Border officials have reported a record number of migrant arrests at the U.S.- Mexico border in 2022, as Central Americans and people from around the world arrive there, often fleeing violence and poverty, in part due to worsening conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human smuggling has had tragic consequences before in San Antonio.

In July 2017, authorities found 39 undocumented immigrants in a sweltering tractor trailer in the parking lot of a Walmart on the South Side. Eight were already dead, and two more died later at area hospitals.

A Kentucky trucker who transported the immigrants from Laredo to San Antonio later was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences without parole. He had pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants for profit, resulting in death.

At the trucker’s trial, witnesses testified that immigrants were told that, as soon as the tractor-trailer left Laredo, the cooling system would turn on. But it never did.

Danilo Zak, policy and advocacy manager at the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy organization, said such deaths are completely preventable through implementation of more humane immigration policies.

Since the implementation of Title 42 in 2020 — an order that fast-tracks expulsions of migrants who come from countries known to have COVID-19, despite potential asylum qualifications — migrants have resorted to more dangerous crossing methods and such deaths have been on the rise, Zak said.

Staff Writers Brian Chasnoff, Elena Bruess, Eli Trovall, Madalyn Mendoza, Ricardo Delgado, Scott Huddleston and Timothy Fanning contributed to this story.


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