The first record was set in the small Texas town of Encinal, half an hour from the Mexican border. It was Monday, 2:50 p.m., and a red Volvo truck passed the border police checkpoint. The driver, wearing a black beanie and striped polo shirt, was caught by surveillance cameras as he spoke to police without exiting the vehicle. The trailer was loaded with 67 people who risked their lives by secretly crossing the border. Half an hour later, the trailer passed another checkpoint later in the town of Cotulla, and the agents also found nothing unusual. Next login is from 6:20 p.m. The truck was parked on a lost road on the outskirts of San Antonio. By the time police open the back doors, 47 migrants have already died from overcrowding, suffocation and dehydration. Six others would die in hospital over the following days.
They were confined in the bowels of the truck for at least four hours without water or air conditioning, according to authorities, who also confirmed it was the largest migrant tragedy on US soil. They may have even spent more time there during the Texas heatwave when temperatures hit 46 degrees. According to the route, the entry was through the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo in the state of Tamaulipas, a hotspot of organized crime. But the origin of the migrants is even further away. Among the deceased were 27 Mexicans. Several from southern states like Oaxaca. Or even further: Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans.
Hermeticism has shaped authorities’ communications since the day of the tragedy, fueling rumors about the migrants’ identities. the American agency Associated Press was able to confirm that among the victims were two Guatemalan children, Wilmer Tulul and Pascual Melvin Guachiac, aged 13. “Mom, we’re already together,” was the last message the family received. The minors, who were cousins, left the community of Tzucubal in the mountainous southwest of the Central American country on June 14. Her goal was to get to Houston, where relatives were waiting for her. According to the same information, the father of one of the boys had paid $3,000 to a coyote, the mafia figure dedicated to human smuggling. Another 3,000 had yet to be paid once they reached their destination.
The ongoing investigation, which has already claimed four detainees, has not made it clear whether the migrants crossed the border by truck. The most common pattern is that even though they crossed Mexico in the trailers, they let them off a little early to cross on foot through a little-guarded area of semi-desert territory shared by both countries to the other side. And once on US soil, after border control, agree with the coyote to return to the truck to reach one of the major cities. In any case, the trailer with the 67 people passed two checkpoints that stretch over the first 100 kilometers of Texas territory. The state’s governor, Republican Greg Abbott, justified Wednesday by saying that “border patrol do not have the resources to inspect all trucks.” Timothy Tubbs, a former police chief in Laredo (USA), told the local press that criminals often spray migrants with spices and spices to mask the smell of the agents’ dogs.
It’s also unclear when the truck arrived at the road where it was found, a lonely turnoff from the main road. At 5:55 p.m., the police received a call to the emergency number. The owner of a mechanical shop in an area near the highway told this newspaper the day after the tragedy that another of the workers was the one who called the police: “When he went to work he found that the trailer was there had stopped. He approached and heard calls for help in Spanish from the trailer. He got scared and called 911. Authorities believe the driver broke down and decided to leave the vehicle. In fact, he was arrested while fleeing the scene on foot, trying to impersonate one of the migrants. The driver is one of four inmates charged with human trafficking who may face the death penalty.
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More trailers, fewer trains
The use of trucks for human trafficking by organized crime is becoming more common. Especially after the tightening of controls on the routes of the freight train that crosses north through Mexico, specifically nicknamed La Bestia. In 2014, a joint agreement between the Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto administrations focused on blocking this pathway. “Walls were built, more police were deployed and the speed of the train was even increased so that people could no longer get on and off as easily,” explains Gretchen Kuhner, head of the Institute for Women in Migration. The numbers are eloquent. From 2014 to 2017, cases of migrant smuggling in trucks that came to light in the United States rose from just 20 to nearly 100, according to a compilation by the United States Strauss center from Austin.
Exactly in 2017, a truck with 39 migrants was found in the parking lot of a shopping center in San Antonio. 10 people died. “This shows that when you impose more restrictions, people are forced to look for more dangerous options,” summarizes Kuhner. Since then, the governments of both the United States and Mexico have continued to tighten border controls.
Three years ago, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s board of directors authorized bus companies to request the immigration document from their customers before purchasing the tickets. Another extraordinary measure, the so-called Title 42, this time justified by the pandemic, has allowed the US for two years to immediately deport undocumented migrants to the Mexican coast.
Paradoxically, according to human rights organizations, this fast-track mechanism of not deporting migrants to their countries of origin has led to persistent people trying to try again. In May, all records of illegal entry into the country were broken, with more than 239,000 border crossings. The blows caused by the pandemic have also caused movements in migration patterns. The Mexicans had almost reduced their undocumented entries into the neighboring country to a minimum. In the last year, however, that has doubled. And the number of crossings continues to increase, as demonstrated by this week’s tragedy, where nearly half of the people hidden in the truck’s trailer were Mexicans.