Federal authorities have charged four men in connection with the deaths of at least 53 migrants who were left in an abandoned trailer truck Monday evening in Texas.
The 45-year-old driver, Homero Zamorano Jr, faces charges of smuggling migrants into the US, leading to their deaths. A 28-year-old man whom Zamorano texted during the doomed trip, Christian Martinez, is accused of conspiring in the fatal attempt to smuggle migrants into the country.
Juan Claudio D’Luna Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna Bilbao, 48, both Mexican nationals, were charged with illegally possessing guns after investigators found them at an address linked to the trailer truck.
Multiple 911 calls directed police to the truck in question in an industrial area of south-west San Antonio, US justice department officials said in a statement Wednesday.
At least 53 people who were in the trailer of the rig at the center of the case have died, and 11 others have been hospitalized.
Zamorano-of Pasadena, Texas – was hiding in brush near the truck and allegedly pretended to be a passenger. But investigators later recovered surveillance video of the rig passing an immigration checkpoint, and it showed he was driving the truck, leading to his arrest, authorities said.
Texts from Zamorano to Martinez about smuggling the migrants found at the scene led investigators to the latter man, who was in Tyler, Texas, the justice department’s statement said.
If convicted as charged, Zamorano and Martinez could potentially receive life imprisonment or even the death penalty, the justice department added.
The D’Lunas were at a house in the 100 block of Arnold Drive in San Antonio, listed on the registration papers for the big rig that contained the bodies, which had been discovered abandoned in an industrial area of the Texas city, agents with the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms wrote in a criminal complaint.
Local police were watching the building at the address when they saw the D’Lunas get into a Ford F-250. Officers stopped the pickup truck to question the men after they began driving off, said the criminal complaint, which was filed in federal court Tuesday.
Officers said they obtained a warrant to search the house, and they found a shotgun, a rifle and three pistols divided among the men’s bedrooms. There was also a pistol in the F-250.
Neither man could legally possess guns because they allegedly admitted that they were in the US from Mexico on visas that had expired and which they had overstayed, agents wrote in their complaint. They jailed both D’Lunas on illegal weapons possession charges, and a judge ordered both to be held without bond until at least Friday, records show.
The D’Lunas could get up to 10 years in prison if eventually convicted as charged.
Agents as of Wednesday had stopped short of directly connecting the D’Lunas to the deaths of the migrants. The attorney listed for D’Luna Mendez declined comment Wednesday. D’Luna Bilbao’s lawyer couldn’t immediately be reached.
Attempts to contact lawyers for Zamorano and Martinez Wednesday evening were unsuccessful.
Monday’s grim discovery is believed to be the nation’s deadliest smuggling episode on the US-Mexico borderreigniting the longstanding debate about American immigration policies.
Officials believe the truck was carrying migrants from countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Forty of the dead so far were male, and 13 were female, said the medical examiner’s office in Bexar county, which includes San Antonio.
The identities of fewer than 40 of the dead had been established as of Wednesday afternoon, authorities said, citing challenges in tracking down the names and relatives of people who furtively cross borders.
The 11 people who remained hospitalized Wednesday were treated for dehydration and other heat-related illness, having been in a trailer that lacked water and air conditioning as it traveled through temperatures approaching 100F (38C).
Texas’ governor, Greg Abbott, said the state’s public safety department would immediately begin adding more checkpoints for large trailer trucks on well-trafficked roadways in an effort to limit episodes like the one Monday.