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U.S. charges four men in Texas semitruck smuggling operation that left 53 migrants dead

Two of the men were U.S. citizens and the other two were Mexican citizens. The U.S. Department of Justice said 64 of the undocumented migrants were taken to local hospitals for treatment and authorities are working with foreign consulate offices for proper notifications to family members.

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June 30, 2022 12:25pm

Updated: June 30, 2022 1:57pm

The U.S. Department of Justice is reporting that four people have been charged with felony crimes after 53 migrants tragically died in the back of a semitruck in San Antonio on Monday, an incident Homeland Security agents are saying is one of the most tragic human trafficking incidents in history.

The deceased migrants were located in brutal conditions inside a semitruck in San Antonio on Monday after as passerby heard their crimes for help. Authorities have said that more than 12 people survived and were quickly rushed to nearby hospitals for medical attention after suffering from overheating.

“Sixteen of the 64 undocumented individuals were transported to local hospitals for medical evaluation. Five died at the hospital. Officials are working with foreign consulate offices for proper notifications to family members of the deceased,” the Justice Department said.

The National Weather Service reported high temperatures in the San Antonio area that day into the low 100s, and some of the victims were so traumatized from the incident, they were having trouble speaking, local archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller told the New York Post.

Christian Martinez, 28, who was detained on Tuesday in Palestine, Texas, was charged with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented migrants resulting in death, the Justice Department said.

Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, a Brownsville native who now lives in Pasadena, Texas, was detained Wednesday on charges related to human smuggling resulting in death, according to a Justice Department press release. Records indicate Zamorano has an extensive criminal record going back to the 1990s.

Zamorano Jr. may have been “very high on meth” according to reports from the San Antonio Express News.

Both men could face up to life in prison or even the death sentence since people died as a result of the smuggling crimes.

The Justice Department statement said law enforcement agents discovered numerous people inside the tractor-trailer, "many of them deceased and some of them incapacitated," with the suspects hiding in a nearby brush.

“SAPD officers were led to the location of an individual, later identified as Zamorano, who was observed hiding in the brush after attempting to abscond. Zamorano was detained by SAPD officers," the DOJ release said.

Homeland Security Investigations agents used surveillance footage from the Laredo Sector Border Patrol that depicted the tractor-trailer going through an immigration checkpoint, the DOJ said.

The truck driver is seen wearing a hat and a black shirt with stripes, according to the department's release. 

“HSI agents confirmed Zamorano matched the individual from the surveillance footage and was wearing the same clothing,” the statement says. The statement also said the two men were communicating with one another throughout the smuggling attempt demonstrating their collaboration.

Authorities have arrested two other individuals, Juan Claudio D'Luna-Mendez and Juan Francisco D'Luna-Bilbao, both citizens of Mexico of whom have been charged with ‘possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the United States,’ according to the Justice Department.

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told journalists that the truck’s tractor trailer had no apparent working air conditioning unit or water for the dozens of migrants crammed inside.

“None of these people were able to extricate themselves out of the truck,” Hood told the reporters. “So they were still in there, awaiting help, when we arrived, meaning just being too weak, weakened state, to actually get out and help themselves."

Craig Larrabee, the acting special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio, said the incident was “the worst human-smuggling event in the United States.”

“In the past, smuggling organizations were mom and pop. Now they are organized and tied in with the cartels. So you have a criminal organization who has no regard for the safety of the migrants. They are treated like commodities rather than people,” the special agent told CNN in a phone interview. 

“They were human beings, it was terrible,” 68-year old Israel Martinez, and local business owner told the network. “We (migrants) come to this country for a better life and yesterday reminded many of us that sadly, some of us achieve it but many others don't do it.”

The tragic incident has ignited a political firestorm with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lashing out against the White House, saying President Joe Biden should take the blame and insisting what happened is the result of a failed immigration policy.

“These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden slammed those comments as inappropriate “political grandstanding” and said his administration “will continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry." 

He called the incident “horrifying and heartbreaking.”

The incident has raised concerns of both political leaders and commentary from newscasters.

“Today in San Antonio it was 102 degrees. Imagine being abandoned inside an 18-wheeler left to die…” Texas State Rep. Tony Gonzales tweeted on Tuesday.

FOX News’s Martha McCallum said the incident was evidence the border is open and that it is being operated by Mexico’s criminal cartels.

During a Tuesday broadcast, she opined “I can’t even wrap my head around what it was like for the people who were still alive inside of this vehicle… The idea that the White House continues to say that the border is closed is preposterous. Obviously, it is not closed, and obviously governments on both sides have completely lost control of what’s going on at the border. The cartels are running the border.”

The tragic incident comes at a time when federal law enforcement officials say they have initiated an “unprecedented” operation to combat human smuggling and trafficking amidst what has become one of worst illegal immigration crises in American history.