Forty-six people believed to be migrants were found dead in the back of a tractor-trailer on a remote back road in rural San Antonio on Monday, according to Texas law enforcement officials.
Sixteen others, including four children, were found alive and taken to hospitals with heat-related illnesses, police and medical officials told a news conference.
“They were suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion,” said Fire Chief Charles Hood. “It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible working AC unit on that rig.”
No children were among those found deceased, the officials said.
The discovery is among the worst instances of migrant deaths in recent history, and comes amid a rise in illegal migration into the U.S. across its southern border.
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San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the 46 who died had “families who were likely trying to find a better life.”
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” Nirenberg said.
A city worker at the scene was alerted to the situation by a cry for help Monday evening, Police Chief William McManus said. Officers arrived to find a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially opened gate to the trailer, he said.
The patients taken to hospital were hot to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, he said.
Three people were taken into custody, but it was unclear if they were absolutely connected with human trafficking, McManus said.
Those in the trailer were part of a presumed migrant smuggling attempt into the U.S., and the investigation was being led by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, McManus said.
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Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier Monday evening had said the death toll was at 42 people did not release any official statement through his office.
Instead, Abbott tweeted a news article about the discovery while blaming U.S. President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
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“These deaths are on Biden,” the governor wrote. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller denounced the “lack of courage to deal with immigration reform” on Twitter.
“Lord have mercy on them,” he wrote, referring to the victims.
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The Washington Post, citing law enforcement officials who spoke anonymously before information was publicly confirmed, said the truck was found by agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that deals with human trafficking cases.
According to the New York Times, San Antonio police officers were searching for the driver of the tractor-trailer, who is believed to have abandoned the vehicle. McManus did not say if the driver was among the three people in custody.
All of the victims were believed to be entering into the United States illegally from Mexico and had been brought north after crossing the border, which was roughly 225 kilometres away from where the truck was found.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the Mexican consul was en route to the site of the discovery, although he noted the nationalities of the victims were still unknown. He said two Guatemalans were among those hospitalized.
The Mexican General Consulate in San Antonio said on Twitter that it would provide aid to any Mexicans involved in the incident, if there were any.
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The latest U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures show immigration arrests at the southern border in May rose to the highest levels ever recorded, with nearly 240,000 people detained that month.
While last year marked a new record with 1.73 million arrests, the agency is on track to surpass 2 million in the current fiscal year.
Illegal border crossings have led to thousands of deaths. Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of San Antonio.
The driver in the 2017 case, James Matthew Bradley, Jr., was sentenced the following year to life in prison for his role in the smuggling operation.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most are related to heat exposure.
Big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border. As crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., migrants were led through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Heat poses a serious danger, particularly when temperatures can rise severely inside vehicles. Weather in the San Antonio area was mostly cloudy Monday, but temperatures swelled to a high of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius) with high humidity.
—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters
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