What is considered the largest smuggling operation gone wrong, Monday’s incident where 53 migrants were found dead in the back of a semi-truck in San Antonio, Texas is a death toll that eclipses previous smuggling operation numbers.
Just weeks before the discovery, the Summit of the Americas took place in Los Angeles, California with 23 western countries attending to discuss the issue of migration and illegal smuggling operations. At the Summit, US President Joe Biden vowed that human traffickers would not be tolerated and that America would be cracking down on smuggling operations.
Now more than ever, people are calling on authorities to crack down on smuggling operations as the trend continues and the death toll rises.
46 migrants found dead inside semi-truck
On Monday, authorities found 46 migrants dead inside of a semi-truck in San Antonio, Texas along Interstate 35 after an employee from a nearby building heard cries from the truck. When authorities opened the truck, the majority of persons were either dead or incapacitated.
According to San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood, only 16 people were pulled out alive and put into medical facilities while police took 3 suspects into custody. Come Thursday, the death toll rose to 53 persons — 6 of the 16 died.
Hood noted the semi-truck had no air conditioning nor water. Driving for hours on end with neither cool air or water, the harsh conditions resulted in the majority of the migrants dying from heat stroke.
The day authorities found the migrants, San Antonio temperatures reached into the 90s and 100s — fatal temperatures that left many of the migrants who were still alive, incapable of moving to open the truck doors.
“None of these people were able to extricate themselves out of the truck,” Hood said. “So they were still in there, awaiting help, when we arrived … meaning just being too weak — weakened state — to actually get out and help themselves.”
Shortly after the bodies were found, Homeland Security took up the case which they consider to be the deadliest human smuggling incident in US history.
Four people were arrested in the death of the 53 migrants
On Wednesday, according to the US Department of Justice Pasadena, Texas resident Homero Zamorano Jr. (45) was arrested on charges related to alleged involvement in human smuggling which resulted in death. Public records indicate a lengthy criminal record prior to the incident.
The second suspect, another Pasadena resident Christian Martinez (28), was charged on Tuesday with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented migrants which resulted in death.
If both are convicted, the suspects could face up to life in prison or the death penalty.
Zamorano made his first court appearance on Thursday before a federal judge in San Antonio where he stated he was not impaired due to mental health conditions, medication or alcohol.
Texas state prosecutors filed a motion requesting that Zamorano be detained without bond. As of now, his detention hearing is set for July 6 at 11 a.m. in a San Antonio federal court.
Other suspects arrested in the death of the migrants include citizens of Mexico Francisco D’Luna-Mendez (23) and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao (48). Both were arrested on charges of being undocumented immigrants possessing weapons and could face up to 10 years in prison.
Authorities stated they arrested the D’Lunas after tracing the tractor trailer’s state registration address to their address in San Antonio.
Cynthia Orr, the D’Luna’s court-appointed lawyer, mentioned D’Luna-Bilbao is the father of D’Luna-Mendez and both live together in their house in San Antonio with their family, working as mechanics. Orr also emphasized the weapons possessed were used to defend themselves against crime in the neighborhood and that neither of them had been charged with smuggling.
Authorities say AC unit failed
According to authorities, the AC unit stopped working without the driver of the van being aware of it.
Texts throughout the day showcase a frazzled Christian Martinez trying to get in contact with driver Homero Zamorano.
The first text gathered by the police is dated at 12:17 p.m. when Martinez sent a truck manifest to Zamorano. A half-hour later, Martinez sent GPS coordinates to an address in Lardo, Texas and by 1:40 p.m. texted “where you at?” which received no response.
At 3:18 p.m. Martinez texted “Call me bro.”
By 6:15 p.m, he sent a final text but the authorities noted that at that point Zamorano was already heading in the brush as the bodies had been found.
Smuggling operations on the increase in the US
Until just recently, the US’s deadliest smuggling operation happened over a decade ago on May 13, 2003 when 19 migrants died after riding in the rear compartment of an 18 wheeler in South Texas.
The person driving the truck in the 2003 incident was Tyrone Williams who had agreed to smuggle the migrants across a border checkpoint for $7,500. Yet when doing so, he reportedly failed to turn on the truck’s cooling system which led to temperatures rising to 173 degrees Fahrenheit (78.3 degrees Celsius) — a strikingly similar situation to the present incident.
The migrants tried to claw their way out of the truck, yet by the time Williams opened the doors in Victoria, Texas, all the migrants were found dead. Williams was sentenced to 34 years in prison.
Horrifying news. 46 migrants were found dead in a semi-truck outside of San Antonio.
We often focus on these mass death events. But people are dying on the border and in migration *constantly.* At least 10 people drowned in the El Paso sector alone in just the last 3 weeks
— Jack Herrera (@jherrerx) June 28, 2022
More recently, on July 23, 2017, 10 migrants were found dead after 39 migrants were being smuggled in a tractor-trailer going to Walmart in San Antonio. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., ended up pleading guilty to the death charges — eventually given a life sentence in 2018.
According to the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in the last eight weeks alone nearly 2,000 smugglers have been arrested. In comparison to years prior, the arrests mark a 600% increase in law enforcement actions taken toward such persons.
Arrest crackdowns are part of Biden’s new strategy
In an effort to curb smuggling operations, DHS has confiscated 20,000 ‘disruptive actions’ which include arrests, seizures of property and criminal investigations — something DHS is referring to as a “Sting Operation”.
The operation is part of Biden’s promise at the Summit of the America’s last month to crack down on smuggling operations.
Throughout the week of talks at the Summit, countries spoke of the mass flow of migration happening throughout the Western Hemisphere and the need for countries to help alleviate this flow by creating better conditions at home.
To decrease the flow of migrants as well as crackdown on smuggling efforts, Biden also announced he would deploy 1,300 personnel throughout the Western Hemisphere and that $50 million was invested in what is known as the “Sting Operation”.
Alongside efforts to decrease smuggling organizations in the US, Biden announced funding for “stabilization efforts in the Americas” and signed an agreement — known as the Los Angeles declaration — which is supposed to support countries most affected by the migration influx economically.
As the US begins its crackdown on an issue that has plagued the country and migrants for years, it begs the question of whether the US efforts will be enough?
Smuggling operations — similar to the most recent tragedy — have been present in countries all over the world for years. In 2015, more than 70 bodies were found inside an abandoned truck in Austria amid an influx of a refugee crisis.
In 2019, the bodies of 39 Vietnamese nationals were found in a refrigerated truck container in Essex, England — 4 men later charged with the incident.
Most recently, on February 7 of this year, the bodies of 19 migrants were found frozen between the border of Turkey and Greece. The bodies were found without shoes and little clothing — Turkey accused Greek border enforcement of stripping the migrants before pushing them into the cold waters.
According to the Impakter article, the latest bodies uncovered are part of a thread of migrant abuse by European border enforcement in countries like Croatia and Greece.
As smuggling operations continue to pose a threat to migrants, thriving in a new country has its own challenges for migrants
Although employment rates for migrants in Europe are increasing — the European Commission found that 8.6 million non-EU citizens were employed in the EU market labor in 2020 — the European Commission’s Statistics on migration to Europe also reports that out of a total 188.6 million persons employed (between the age of 20 to 64), migrants made up only 4.6% of the EU labor force.
The report also found that immigrants were underrepresented in a plethora of jobs — particularly jobs that require specialized degrees — including teaching professions, science and engineering associates, business and administrative professionals, etc.
The 1951 Geneva Convention signed into European law that refugees are a special class of migrants that deserve special treatment by host states under international law. This special treatment first includes the right to seek asylum.
Other rights given to refugees under the Geneva Convention fall into tiers. Refugees’ first-tier rights include freedom of religion, property rights, the right to primary education, a right to access courts, etc. Second-tier rights are given once refugees are “lawfully present” which includes the right to self-employment and the right to move freely.
Yet these rights only apply to refugees, not economic migrants looking for better opportunities and work.
As shown by the European Commission’s migration statistics, migrants are largely under-represented in fields with higher-paying jobs, perhaps because under the Geneva Convention, no rights like the right to primary education are guaranteed to economic migrants — only to political migrants seeking safety. Yet arguably, most migrants in general seek safety or at the very least a better living situation even when not given the refugee status.
The European Commission even mentions many of the non-EU citizens in the labor force are “essential workers” and in 2019 without migration “the European population would have shrunk by half a million” — migrants proving to be an asset.
The several deadly incidents in Europe and the latest smuggling operations in the US demonstrate that migration is a global issue — one that can only be fixed if countries work together to stop migration flow from the source. And that opens up yet another issue: What needs to be done to stop migration from the source and improve people’s chances for a decent and safe living in their home country?
If migrants continue to be faced with more danger at home than the journey ahead, they will continue to gamble away the risk and deadly incidents will most likely keep rising.
Vice versa, if countries continue to limit migrants’ accessibility to rights, jobs and basic living necessities, migrants will never be able to settle down safely.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Picture of the US-Mexico border on November 30, 2011. Source: Rey Perezoso, Flickr.