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The semi-truck driver who transported up to 100 migrants across the southern border before leaving them to die in the sweltering Texas heat allegedly tried to disguise himself as a victim of the tragedy.
Surveillance cameras captured Homero Zamorano, 45, driving the rig across the border hours before he allegedly abandoned it on a road in the outskirts of San Antonio.
Police say Zamorano, of Houston, was ‘very high on meth’ at the time of his arrest and tried to pose as ‘an irregular immigrant to avoid being detained.’
Mexican nationals Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez were also taken into custody at a home in San Antonio. They were charged in federal court Tuesday with possessing firearms while residing in the US illegally.
The death toll in the tragedy, which is the deadliest human smuggling attempt in American history, rose to 53 Wednesday. Officials have identified 34 of the deceased, including four Hondurans and two Guatemalan sisters.
Police say the smugglers treated the migrants ‘worse than animals’ throughout the voyage, leaving them no water or visible means of air-conditioning. Several survivors are in critical condition after suffering brain damage and internal bleeding.
Investigators suspect the migrants paid the smugglers around $10,000 for safe passage to the US.
Zamorano was photographed driving the trailer through the immigration checkpoints in Encinal, Texas, about 34 miles from the Mexico border, around 2.50pm Monday.
The truck was found abandoned near San Antonio, about 160 miles from the border, around 6pm. Investigators suspect the truck had suffered some sort of mechanical problem.
The driver and suspected human smuggler pretended to be an illegal migrant when authorities confronted him, Francisco Garduño Yáñez, the director of the National Institute of Migration, revealed during a news briefing Wednesday.
‘The driver tried to pass himself off as one of the survivors,’ Yáñez said, noting the National Institute of Migration had no data on Zamorano.
‘ICE reported that three people are already detained as allegedly responsible for human trafficking and homicide,’ the president added.
Zamorano was arrested Monday in a desolate area near Lackland Air Force Base after having tried to pass himself off as a survivor.
‘He was very high on meth when he was arrested nearby and had to be taken to the hospital,’ a law enforcement official confirmed to The San Antonio Express News.
He was taken to a local hospital for treatment and is expected to charged soon.
D’Luna-Bilbao and D’Luna-Mendez were arrested at a residence in the 100 block of Arnold Drive after officers traced the semi’s registration to the property.
The residence was placed under surveillance and both men were arrested as they attempted to leave the property.
Yáñez also confirmed that Zamorano had been driving a semi with a stolen registration, saying: ‘The plates, logos and license were cloned.’
Officials had first linked Zamorano’s rig to an Alamo resident. However, investigation proved the Alamo man’s truck had been out hauling grain in another part of Texas at the time of the incident.
Isaac Limon, whose father-in-law owned the truck whose data was cloned, told The Washington Post: ‘It was a perfect setup.’
‘His DOT Number was illegally copied onto the truck…’ he added. ‘He is not the owner of the truck in San Antonio that is involved in this tragic event.’
‘Sad to say, but he’s a bit of a victim, too, because people believe it was him.’
Law enforcement officials believe Zamorano was transporting around 100 migrants in the rig, but the exact number remains unclear.
Homeland Security Investigations agents confirmed migrants typically pay $8,000 to $10,000 to be taken across the southern boarder, loaded into the tractor-trailer and driven to San Antonio.
Once in San Antonio they are transferred to smaller vehicles to be taken to their final destinations across the US.
Medical examiners have potentially identified 34 of the victims, said Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, who represents the district where the truck was abandoned.
But she says the identification process has proven to be a ‘tedious, tedious, sad, difficult process’ as many victims have been found with stolen IDs or no identification documents at all.
The deceased migrants included 39 men and 12 women. County officials told WOAI-TV five of the victims were under the age of 18. Investigators said they were not young children, but possibly teenagers.
The Honduran government on Wednesday released the names of several victims including Adela Betulia Ramirez Quezada, 28, and brothers Fernando Jose Redondo Caballero, 19, and Alejandro Miguel Andino Caballero, 22.
Alejandro Caballero’s girlfriend, 20-year-old Margie Tamara Paz Grajera, was also among the deceased.
She studied at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, according to local news outlet La Prensa.
Her social media accounts revealed she was well-loved by family, friends and boyfriend, Caballero.
‘I love you my baby,’ Grajera wrote in a recent post to Alejandro Caballero.
Sisters Carla and Griselda Carac-Tambriz, of Guatemala, were the first victims to be named in wake of the tragedy.
Immigration consultant Fernando Castro Molina confirmed their identities to Guatemalan-based newspaper El Metropolitano on Tuesday afternoon.
‘Let’s achieve our dreams and also help our family,’ one of the sisters reportedly said before the pair embarked on their journey to the U.S.
Guatemala’s foreign ministry told DailyMail.com late Tuesday officials were working to identify three possible Guatemalans among the dead.
The governmental also confirmed the identities of two hospitalized Guatemalans.
Among the dead are 27 people from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador, he said. One of the victims had no identification, officials revealed.
Mexico’s foreign affairs secretary identified a hospitalized victim on Tuesday as José Luis Guzmán Vásquez, 32, of San Miguel Huautla, Mexico. His current condition remains unknown.
Another cousin had been traveling with Guzmán Vásquez and was now considered missing.
Authorities believe the migrants were loaded into the semi-truck in Laredo, a border city, on Monday afternoon.
It appeared the migrants had recently crossed the border and were picked up by the truck to be taken to where they would work, according to a Mexican official.
They were driven 150 miles to San Antonio before smugglers abandoned the vehicle after it suffered mechanical problems.
‘They had just parked it on the side of the road,’ Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the county’s top elected official told reporters on Tuesday. ‘Apparently had mechanical problems and left it there. The sheriff thinks it came across from Laredo.’
A city worker found the truck parked beside some railroad tracks around 6pm Monday after hearing a faint cry for help emanating from the truck. Temperatures had soared to as high as 103 degrees Fahrenheit.
Police recalled finding the rear door to the trailer open with ‘stacks of bodies’ inside, while other victims were strewn collapsed nearby.
Some of the victims were hot to the touch and there were no signs of water or visible means of air-conditioning inside the truck. First responders said the migrants were ‘treated worse than animals.’
‘The heat was torrential. There was no air in that vehicle. There was no water,’ San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood explained Wednesday morning on GMA. ‘They suffered. They lost consciousness and then they ended up dying.’
Police Chief William McManus said officers had to ‘separate some of the deceased trying to find who might still be alive.’
The victims were found sprinkled with a pungent substance, possibly steak seasoning, officials said. The practice is commonly used by smugglers to mask the scent of human cargo and evade canine detection.
Police suspect several migrants may have jumped or started falling out of the back of truck before the traffickers abandoned it along the roadway.
At least three bodies were found scattered down road, with the furthest one located about 75 yards from the truck, law enforcement sources confirmed to The New York Times.
Officials also said it was possible that those found along the road had died inside the truck, but fallen out when its doors opened.
Some of the victims staggered out of the trailer before dying and were found several blocks away, police told The Texas Tribune.
‘It’s unspeakable,’ San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said on MSNBC, noting that his community depends on migrants in the midst of a labor shortage. ‘It’s a tragedy beyond explanation.’
The surviving migrants will likely be released into the U.S. to pursue asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief, the CBP official and two other law enforcement officials told Reuters. Some survivors of human smuggling in the past have been taken into American custody to testify as witnesses.
President Joe Biden, in a statement Tuesday, called the incident ‘horrifying and heartbreaking.’
‘Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful,’ Biden said, vowing to crack down on multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling enterprises that have helped fuel a record number of migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border since he took office in January 2021.
The deaths highlighted the challenge of controlling migrant crossings for Biden, a Democrat who came to office pledging to reverse some of the hard-line immigration policies of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s border strategy ahead of the midterm congressional elections in November. They also attacked Biden in wake of Monday’s tragedy, blaming the deadly incident on his administration’s lax approach to border control.
At a press conference outside one hospital on Tuesday, Rebeca Clay-Flores, a local Democratic official in Bexar County, sharply criticized Republican Governor Greg Abbott for a tweet on Monday night blaming Biden’s border policies for the incident even as the emergency unfolded.
‘While bodies were still being removed, and others being taken to local hospitals, he chose to be heartless and point the finger,’ Clay-Flores said.
Big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings. Prior to that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border.
As crossings became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks, migrants were led through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more to smugglers.
Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of San Antonio.
Other incidents have occurred long before migrants reached the U.S. border.
Last December, more than 50 died when a semitrailer filled with migrants rolled over on a highway in southern Mexico.
In October, Mexican authorities reported finding 652 migrants packed into six trailers near the U.S. border. They were stopped at a military checkpoint.
Migrant crossings, rescues and deaths along the southern border have hit record levels under the leadership of the Biden Administration.
Authorities have expelled migrants – largely from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – more than 2 million times under a pandemic-era rule in effect since March 2020 that denies them a chance to seek asylum but encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences for getting caught.
People from other countries, notably Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia, are subject to Title 42 authority less frequently due to higher costs of sending them home, strained diplomatic relations and other considerations.
Border Patrol performed 14,278 ‘search-and-rescue missions’ in a seven-month period through May, exceeding the 12,833 missions performed during the previous 12-month period and up from 5,071 the year before.
Border Patrol reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30 2021, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most are related to heat exposure.
The International Organization for Migration, which documents migrant deaths, alleges that the number of people who died crossing the border in 2021 was actually more than 650. CBP has not published a death tally for 2022.
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