Some 160 miles (250 km) from the US-Mexico border in San Antonio, 46 migrants were discovered to be dead on the back of a tractor-trailer last Monday in one of the country’s most deadly incidents of human smuggling in US history along the US-Mexico border amid rising border crossings and arrests.

According to authorities, a tractor-trailer was discovered sitting next to railroad tracks in San Antonio’s southwestern remote area, specifically at 9600 Quintana Road. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus reported that a person was working in a nearby building when they heard someone screaming for help around 5:50 pm. To their surprise, the individual opened the partially opened trailer doors and found stacks of bodies in the trailer after possibly dying from heat strokes, dehydration, and starvation, among other conditions.

According to San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood, 16 other people were found alive within the trailer – 12 adults and four minors, with reports that the individuals were “hot to the touch” as they were suffering from extreme exhaustion and heat strokes. He further noted that these people were too weak to get out of the trailer on their own, so they had to be assisted. The tractor-trailer was refrigerated, according to Hood, but there was no visible working air-conditioning unit on the truck. McManus stated that this was the most significant migrant-related incident in recent years.

“The patients that we saw were hot to the touch,” Hood said. “They were suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion. [There were] no signs of water in the vehicle. It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible, working AC unit on that rig.”

With temperatures in Texas rising to 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 Celsius), it is not a surprise why the people discovered in the tractor-trailer were dying of heat strokes as they were confined in a metal box that absorbs heat.

Following the discovery, three other individuals were arrested. However, their roles and what exactly they were arrested for were not immediately clear. An official from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stated that the Homeland Security Investigations division was already on the case with the local police to investigate and find out where the people had come from and described the incident as an “alleged human smuggling event.”

Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard announced a different body count. According to his Tweet early on June 28, he received information from US authorities that 50 people had died, precisely 22 Mexicans, 7 Guatemalans, and 2 Hondurans, with the remaining yet to be identified by authorities.

We are in mourning. Huge tragedy. Mexico joins investigations in the US, coordinated with DHS,” Ebrard said.

On the other hand, Guatemalan authorities from its consulate in McAllen, Texas, stated that they could not confirm whether there were Guatelaman nationals on board and were waiting for official confirmation of their identities.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg described the incident and the deaths as “nothing short of a horrific tragedy.”

“We know of 46 individuals who are no longer with us who had families, who were likely trying to find a better life, and we have 16 folks who are fighting for their lives in the hospital,” he said. “Our focus right now is to try to bring aid to them as best we can.”

Local TV news footage showed the San Antonio authorities blocking the road leading up to the railroad tracks where the trailer was discovered. Police officers, emergency response units, and the feds were on the scene. Here it was revealed that the tractor-trailer had US license plates, which the authorities say was an attempt for the alleged smugglers to reduce the risk of scrutiny.

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Record High Migrant Crossings

Tractor-trailer truck with 46 dead migrants inside (Hong Kong United Times).
Tractor-trailer truck with 46 dead migrants inside (Hong Kong United Times).

The incident again highlights the increasing problem of illegal migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border. Note that we are not referring to the people found in the trailer as “illegal migrants,” as that is the authorities’ job. However, the evidence would point to the fact that the incident was an attempt at an illegal border crossing.

The highway near where the truck was found, I-35, is a highway that runs through Mexico and San Antonio directly from the border. The highway is no stranger to illegal border crossings as it is a prevalent smuggling route, unsurprisingly because of the large volume of trucks passing through. Big rigs, in particular, became very popular in the early 1990s for illegal border crossings as border policy enforcement along San Diego and El Paso had intensified.

The Biden Administration has found it challenging to control the illegal border crossings along the southern border. Initially, the administration wanted to reverse Trump-era border restrictions, including Title 42, a policy enacted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

United States Border Patrol at Algodones Sand Dunes, California, USA (US Border Patrol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
United States Border Patrol at Algodones Sand Dunes, California, USA (US Border Patrol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

President Biden announced last April that they were going to end the implementation of the policy as COVID-19 was no longer that high of a threat, but later on, they decided to keep the policy. The procedure was supposed to be rescinded last May 23. However, a temporary restraining order sponsored by 21 Republican states would curb the cancellation of Title 42.

“With the border shut as tightly as it is today for migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed into more and more dangerous routes. Truck smuggling is a way up,” Policy Director at the American Immigration Council Aaron Reichlin-Melnick said on Twitter.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed President Biden for the incident through Twitter: “These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies.”

This isn’t the first time migrants have died attempting to cross the border. Just last year, 55 migrants being smuggled through Mexico died near the Guatemalan border during a tractor-trailer crash. In 2017, 10 individuals perished after being left inside a tractor-trailer outside a Walmart in San Antonio.