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SAN ANTONIO — A tractor-trailer found near Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio contained the bodies of 50 dead people, along with 16 others who have been taken to hospitals, according to local officials in San Antonio and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a news conference near the scene.
Local officials said federal authorities were now investigating the case and that three people were in custody, but it was unclear if they were connected to the incident. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson said Homeland Security Investigations is leading a criminal investigation with the support of San Antonio police.
The horrifying discovery was made near the intersection of Cassin Drive and Quintana Road in Southwest San Antonio.
Federal, state and local authorities believe that the victims were migrants. Cross-border smuggling and human trafficking have been longstanding problems along the U.S.-Mexico border, but the deaths of 50 people represent a stunning loss of life. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus described the case as the deadliest human smuggling incident he could recall in the city.
“Horrified at this tragic loss of life near San Antonio. This speaks to the desperation of migrants who would put their lives in the hands of callous human smugglers who show no regard for human life,” Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus said in a statement. “We will be working with our federal, state and local partners to assist in every way possible with this investigation.”
Authorities received the first call about the truck shortly before 6 p.m. from a worker in the area who had heard a cry for help and went to investigate, McManus said.
According to a law enforcement official, it appears people were trying to jump out of the tractor-trailer because some of the deceased were found along several blocks. The tractor-trailer had a refrigeration system, the official said, but it did not appear to be working. Many of the people found inside the vehicle appeared to have been sprinkled with steak seasoning, the official said, in perhaps an attempt to cover up the smell of people as the smugglers were transporting them.
Authorities said the truck’s doors were partly open when they arrived; a body was outside the vehicle and the rest could be seen inside. The city’s fire chief, Charles Hood, said the survivors did not appear to have access to water and were too weak to exit the truck on their own.
“We’re not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there,” Hood said. “None of us come to work imagining that.”
Twelve adults and four children were taken to hospitals. They were hot to the touch and were suffering from heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but Hood said he was “very hopeful” that they would survive.
With a few days left in the month, National Weather Service meteorologists say June 2022 has already become the warmest June on record in San Antonio.
The average number of days with temperatures of 100 degrees or higher in San Antonio is nine, according to historical data from NWS dating back to 1885. This year, San Antonio has had 16 days with temperatures of 100 degrees or higher, NWS meteorologist Bob Fogarty said.
McManus told reporters that he was not confident that everyone who had been inside the truck had been accounted for, and that authorities still don’t have an indication of how many people in total had been inside the truck. He said the three people in custody were not found with the truck, but declined to comment further.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the Mexican consul in San Antonio was en route to the incident site, according to Reuters. Ebrard said the nationalities of all the victims were still unknown, but Guatemalan officials said in a statement that U.S. and Mexican authorities have confirmed some of the victims are from Guatemala. Officials with the Guatemalan consulate in McAllen said they are visiting a hospital to see if two of the children who survived are from Guatemala.
The Honduran foreign ministry said it is investigating whether any of the victims were from Honduras. Alex Selgado of Fuerza Catracha, a Honduran immigrant rights organization, told The San Antonio Express-News at the scene that “officials did inform us that some of the deceased may be Honduran because they had emblems or insignia of our country” on their clothing.
In 2017, San Antonio police discovered 39 undocumented immigrants inside of a scorching-hot tractor-trailer, resulting in 10 deaths. The driver of the truck was sentenced to life in prison in 2018.
Meanwhile in 2003, 19 undocumented immigrants were found dead in Victoria after suffocating in an airless trailer.
The Rio Grande Valley Sector Border Patrol last week said it had disrupted four human smuggling events that resulted in 50 arrests.
“I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of life today and am praying for those still fighting for their lives,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. secretary of Homeland Security. “Far too many lives have been lost as individuals — including families, women, and children — take this dangerous journey.”
In a tweet responding to the incident, Gov. Greg Abbott blamed the deaths on President Joe Biden, saying that “they are a result of his deadly open border policies.”
Biden responded in a statement Tuesday.
"Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my 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 said.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who’s running against Abbott for governor, tweeted that the incident is “devastating.”
Gustavo García-Siller, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Antonio, wrote on Twitter: “Once again, the lack of courage to deal with immigration reform is killing and destroying lives. We do not learn. God teach us to change.”
The Mexican consul general in San Antonio, Ruben Minutti, asked any Mexican citizens seeking help or information about the incident to call the consulate at 210-872-4386, according to San Antonio Report.
Lomi Kriel contributed to this story.
The Texas Tribune is trying to learn more about the lives of the 50 victims and 16 survivors found inside an 18-wheeler in San Antonio on Monday evening. Please help us tell their stories by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.