San Antonio (CNN) — The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office in Texas reported Wednesday that the number of dead migrants found in a truck in San Antonio rose to 53.
In a statement, the medical examiner’s office added that of the 53 people, 40 were men and 13 were women.
Two men have been charged in connection with the deaths of 53 migrants who were found in stifling conditions in a truck in San Antonio, according to criminal complaints filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas.
Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao were charged with “possession of a weapon by a foreigner illegally in the United States,” according to criminal complaints filed Monday, the same day the migrants were found. Authorities were able to locate the men after responding to the truck incident, according to the affidavit.
“Agents investigated the Texas registration plate on the truck and found a San Antonio, Texas residence as the truck’s registered address with Texas motor vehicle records,” the affidavit states.
The San Antonio Police Department set up surveillance at the residence “and observed a Ford F-250 leaving the residence with a single Hispanic male at the wheel.” The man was identified as D’Luna-Bilbao, who had a firearm in the console, according to the affidavit.
In the same house, authorities saw another truck whose driver, a younger man, was identified as D’Luna-Mendez.
Both men are Mexican citizens residing in the US illegally, according to affidavits. CNN has not been able to determine if either has an attorney.
What we know about the truck where the dead migrants were found
Authorities were alerted to the scene Monday just before 6 p.m., when a worker in a nearby building heard a cry for help, Police Chief Bill McManus said. The worker found a trailer with the doors partially open and saw dead people inside, he said.
The truck passed through a checkpoint north of Laredo, Texas, on Monday, said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents a district that includes Laredo and San Antonio, which are about 150 miles apart. Cuellar spoke Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and has been in contact with the US Border Patrol, he told CNN.
Felipe Betancourt Jr., co-owner of Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting in Alamo, Texas, told CNN Tuesday that the semi used the same federal and state identification numbers as one of his vehicles. He said images of the truck show it had his company’s federal Department of Transportation (DOT) number and the Texas DOT identification numbers of one of his trucks. This was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News.
Betancourt said the truck in San Antonio, which is the same color as his red Volvo semi, is not owned by his company. A search of the US DOT and Texas DOT numbers posted on the truck found in San Antonio showed that the numbers had been registered to Betancourt’s company.
“We are not linked to that truck at all,” Betancourt said. “We don’t know who that vehicle belongs to.”
The migrants found in the truck come from three countries
The death toll includes migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, according to a federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office said in a statement Wednesday that of the 53 people who died, 40 were men and 13 women.
It has also potentially identified 34 of the victims, Bexar County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores said during a news conference Tuesday. The county medical examiner has also asked neighboring county medical examiner offices for help due to the high number of victims.
Forty-eight people died at the scene and two more died in hospitals, the federal law enforcement official told CNN Tuesday, noting that the number of victims is preliminary.
Sixteen people — 12 adults and four children — were taken alive and conscious to medical facilities, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said at a news conference Monday night.
“This is the worst human smuggling event in America. It shines a light on how dangerous human smuggling is,” said Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of San Antonio Homeland Security Investigations.
“In the past, the smuggling organizations were mom and pop. Now they are organized and linked with the cartels. So you have a criminal organization that does not take into account the safety of the migrants. They are treated like merchandise instead of people,” he told CNN in a phone interview.
The discovery came as US federal authorities launched what they described as a “unprecedented” operation to disrupt human smuggling networks amid an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border.
Three people have been taken into custody and are in police custody, although their connection to the situation is unclear, Police Chief Bill McManus said at a news conference Monday night. It is not clear if the two accused men are part of the three people arrested.
Migrants were ‘too weak’ from the heat to help themselves
The migrants found in the sweltering truck were hot to the touch and suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion, Hood said. The refrigerator semi-trailer did not have a visible working air conditioning unit, and there was no sign of water inside, he said. It’s unclear how long the people inside the truck were dead, the official said.
Monday’s high temperatures in the San Antonio area ranged from 32 to 37 degrees Celsius, according to the National Weather Service.
“None of these people were able to get out of the truck,” Hood said. “So, they were still there, waiting for help, when we arrived… which means they were too weak, in a weakened state, to go out and help themselves.”
Ashley C. Hoff, US Attorney for the Western District of Texas, said the migrants were “the apparent victims of human traffickers indifferent to the welfare of human life.”
“We will continue to work with Homeland Security Investigations and local first responders to identify and bring to justice those responsible for this tragedy,” he added.
Among those traveling in the truck were at least 22 Mexicans and two Hondurans, the federal police agent said. Seven Guatemalans were among the dead, and another Guatemalan was in a hospital in critical condition, Guatemala’s foreign minister told CNN.
President Joe Biden described the discovery as “horrific and heartbreaking,” saying the deaths underscored the need to go after criminal trafficking networks.
“Exploiting vulnerable people for profit is shameful, as is the political bluster surrounding the tragedy, and my administration will continue to do all it can to prevent human smugglers and traffickers from preying on people seeking to enter the United States.” United across ports of entry,” Biden said.
Firefighters saw “lots of bodies”
“I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of life today and pray for those who are still fighting for their lives,” Mayorkas said on social media. “Too many lives have been lost as people, including families, women and children, take this dangerous journey.”
All 60 firefighters who were on scene are undergoing a critical incident stress report, Hood said.
“We’re not supposed to open up a truck and see piles of bodies there. None of us come to work imagining that,” the fire chief said.
One of the bodies was outside the trailer when firefighters arrived, Hood said.
Business owners in the area where the trailer was found told CNN they were in shock.
“They were human beings, it was terrible,” said Israel Martinez, 68, co-owner of USA Auto Parts. “We (migrants) came to this country to have a better life and what happened yesterday reminded me that many of us sadly we succeed, but many others do not.
US officials are working to better manage the flow of migrants toward the US-Mexico border, Mayorkas told CNN earlier this month. His operation builds on earlier efforts to go after the smugglers that migrants often rely on as they make their way to the border. Last spring, the Department of Homeland Security also announced an effort to crack down on smuggling criminal organizations, along with federal partners.
In recent years, migrants have faced other tragedies and challenges enduring the dangerous heat and terrain as they try to cross the US-Mexico border.
Ransoms at the southern border of the United States have exceeded those of the last fiscal year. Since October, there have been more than 14,000 searches and rescues along the southern US border, according to US Customs and Border Protection, including rescues at dangerous water crossings. That’s more than 12,833 searches and rescues in fiscal year 2021, with more than three months to go.
In 2017, 10 people died and dozens were injured from heat-related conditions after being discovered in a tractor trailer at a San Antonio Walmart. The truck driver was sentenced to life in prison without parole in federal prison.
In 2003, 18 victims between the ages of 7 and 91 were found dead in the back of a truck with about 100 other people when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, investigators said. The driver in that case was initially sentenced to life in prison, but in 2011 he was sentenced again to almost 34 years in prison.
The heat has not been the only danger for migrants crammed into vehicles. In March 2021, a truck filled with 25 people collided with an SUV in an isolated stretch of California’s Imperial Valley, killing 13 undocumented immigrants.
— CNN’s Carolyn Sung, Michelle Watson, Karol Suarez, Kevin Liptak, Jason Hanna, Sharif Paget, Jen Deaton, Amanda Jackson and Steve Almasy contributed to this report.