SAN ANTONIO — The tractor-trailer sat on the worn-out asphalt of Quintana Road, a debris-strewn urban hinterland between train tracks and salvage yards. Its rear doors hung loose and open, and for a distance along the baking pavement several bodies lay dead in the roadway.
At first, the truck drew little notice against the backdrop of a Monday afternoon in industrial San Antonio. That was the idea: It was meant to be one leg in a sprawling and mostly hidden smuggling network of cars and trucks, guides and stash houses used to convey thousands upon thousands of people illegally into the United States.
The use of large trucks to pack together and conceal migrants has been on the rise, current and former officials said, a means of maximizing profits for criminal networks and a sign of the increasing desperation of those seeking to enter the country by any means possible.
Along Quintana Road, something had gone wrong. The truck, which had Texas plates, was not moving. And the driver had fled on foot.
Soon, a nearby worker approached, drawn by a cry for help, and discovered the ghastly cargo: at least 62 people, smuggled from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, most of them already dead from the heat. At least 51 would be declared dead by Tuesday in what officials said was among the worst episodes of migrant death in the United States in recent years.
“I have been warning for a year that a tragedy was going to occur because of the increase in truck smuggling,” said Tom Homan, a former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Trump administration. “In California, Arizona, Texas, they have been seeing a lot of tractor-trailers,” he said. “They can pick up eight in a van, 12 in a pickup truck or get at least 80 in a tractor-trailer.”
The largest share of the fatalities in San Antonio were migrants believed to be from Mexico, according to the country’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, who said 22 Mexicans had died along with at least seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans. Others had yet to be identified.
“We mourn for those 51 immigrants who came to us to breathe that fresh air but instead found death in the State of Texas,” said Nelson Wolff, the top executive in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. He faulted state leadership for spending billions on National Guard troops and other border security measures instead of using the money to provide food and shelter to immigrants and to arrest smugglers.
Officials said that at least three people had been detained in connection with the case on Monday and were currently in the custody of Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the Department of Homeland Security investigating the deaths. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged two of them, Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, with possessing a handgun without legal residency in the country after officers stopped them outside a San Antonio home where the truck was registered.
The driver of the truck had also been taken into custody, the authorities said, though it was not clear whether any charges had been filed against him.
“We got him leaving the scene,” Chief William McManus of the San Antonio Police Department said in an interview with The New York Times. “He was found in a field nearby.”
Chief McManus said the truck had Texas license plates and fit a pattern noted by officers in the city: the use of tractor-trailers by human smugglers. “We’ve seen it a number of times,” he said. “It is inherently dangerous because once you’re locked in there, you’re stuck,” he said. “Once the refrigeration goes out, the air-conditioning goes out, it’s nothing but a death trap.”
The truck did not have a functioning cooling system, officials said, leaving those secreted inside sweltering as outside temperatures soared above 100 degrees on Monday. No water was found inside the truck, officials said. The dead included 39 men and 12 women, according to a spokesman for Bexar County; at least 11 survivors were still being treated in area hospitals for heatstroke, some in critical condition.
The vehicle appeared to have been made to look like a truck with a legitimate purpose, with a copy of a company’s insignia put on the door, the chief said. Law enforcement officials said doing so was a common tactic. “Cloned vehicles in this area are nothing unusual,” said Sheriff Eusevio Salinas of Zavala County, which is between the border and San Antonio. “They clone utility trucks, cable trucks. We’ve had FedEx and UPS drivers say they’re stealing their magnetic stickers.”
Cities like San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles have long been major distribution points for migrants brought by smuggling networks into the country through gateway cities such as Laredo.
The networks follow a pattern that has become familiar to U.S. border officials. Smugglers will bring small groups of around five or 10 people across the border, officials say, and connect them with other members of the network on the U.S. side who pick them up and drive them in private cars to a staging area, commonly referred to as a stash house. The houses might be on a ranch in an isolated area, or abandoned homes in border communities. Once there is a large group, sometimes about 80 or more, they are loaded onto a rig and transported to large cities.
If a truck manages to clear the Border Patrol’s multiple checkpoints on the U.S. side of the border, it is unlikely to be stopped as it heads north unless the driver commits a traffic violation.
Just in the last month, federal agents have intercepted several groups of migrants hidden in tractor-trailers, including 88 in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and more than a dozen tucked between pallets of scrap metal at a checkpoint outside of Falfurrias, Texas.
Two men from Mexico were arrested and charged in May with smuggling 124 migrants piled in a tractor-trailer. According to prosecutors, the truck was intercepted at a checkpoint along Interstate 35, and the driver had been paid to ferry them as far as San Antonio.
But much remained unclear about the circumstances surrounding the path taken by the migrants who were found on Monday.
Officials have not said where the migrants crossed, how they came to the remote road in San Antonio, nor whether it was a designated spot along their journey or a place they had ended up because of a breakdown.
Rudy Martinez, a tow driver who works along Quintana Road, said he saw the eighteen-wheeler turn left onto the road at some point before 5 p.m. on Monday. “I saw the guy driving. I waved to the driver,” he said. “The driver wore a neon shirt like guys who wave traffic through.”
By 5:51 p.m., the worker approached the truck and called 911, the chief said.
The nationalities of those found aboard the truck underscored a shift in migration patterns that began during the pandemic, with Mexican migrants again surging across the border after years of decline.
Since the introduction of Title 42, a public health rule, Mexicans and Central Americans have for the most part been immediately expelled back to Mexico when they are encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol.
That has led many of them to try repeatedly to sneak into the country until they succeed. Last month, one out of every four migrants caught by agents had been previously apprehended at least once in the past 12 months.
The situation has fueled an underground, criminal economy on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants are at the mercy of smuggling organizations, whose tentacles spread from villages in Latin America to deep into U.S. cities. Along their way, they change hands, and vehicles, many times.
In multiple interviews over the past two years, migrants and aid workers have said it is virtually impossible to travel without paying the gangs that control wide expanses of the Mexican side of the border, whose smuggling services extend into the United States.
Adriana Rocha, a San Antonio City Council member who represents the area where migrants were found, said it was not unusual for trucks carrying migrants to pass through. On a recent ride with the local police, Ms. Rocha said, she noticed that the area’s isolation provided cover to those transporting migrants illegally.
Jack Staton, a former senior executive with Homeland Security Investigations, said that rigs transporting migrants along the busy commercial corridor between Laredo and San Antonio were highly unlikely to be detected. “It’s the perfect way to smuggle people when you have that many vehicles coming a day,” he said. “You blend in with regular commercial traffic.”
While families crossing the border usually hand themselves over to agents, most of the migrants being transported in commercial vehicles are single adults seeking to evade detection.
“These are individuals who do not want to be caught or to turn themselves in. They want to get to work,” said Mr. Staton, who retired from the Homeland Security Department in December. “Covid was devastating economies, putting people out of work.”
Mr. Homan, who worked for 35 years in border enforcement, said that the worst day of his life was when he was enlisted in 2003 to lead an investigation in Victoria, Texas, of a smuggling operation that resulted in the death of 19 migrants in a trailer.
“They were suffocating inside a steel box where it was 170 degrees,” Mr. Homan said.
“People were down to their underwear,” he added, having ripped off their clothes in a desperate attempt to cool off. “It was like a house of horrors.”
Those who work along Quintana Road said the remote area had been a spot for migrant drop-offs since at least the 1990s.
“I know when I first started in the yards a lot of people came from Mexico,” said Rose Ann Iniguez, 53, the manager of Junk Yard Dogs auto salvage. “They were hungry and thirsty.”
Ms. Iniguez said she was shocked to learn of the deaths only a few hundred yards from her workplace. “They’re human. I know why they are coming. They have to survive, too,” she said.
She said she used to see more people walking in the past. Now those who passed through appeared more cautious. “I think they are scared,” she said. “When I see migrants, they get into cars. Someone is there to pick them up.”
Reporting was contributed by Edgar Sandoval, Maria Abi-Habib, Oscar Lopez, Eileen Sullivan, Alexandra E. Petri, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, David Montgomery and Daniel Victor. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.