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Deadly transport: More trucks are smuggling migrants in trailers

A year after 53 migrants died after being transported in a sweltering truck trailer, the business of human smuggling has only grown, according to law enforcement and drivers.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and his canine companion inspect a tractor trailer at the Otay Mesa, Calif., port of entry June 23, 2016.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and his canine companion inspect a tractor trailer at the Otay Mesa, Calif., port of entry in 2016.Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Border Patrol file

LAREDO, Texas — The temperature in Laredo had reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit that day. The truck's trailer was closed and had no refrigeration, according to the driver who referred to himself as John.

He avoided thinking about the people inside the trailer.

“They are no longer human to me … because if you see them like that, you’re going to mortify yourself and that weakness affects you," said John, whose name was being withheld because he fears reprisals from the criminal group that hired him.

He was told he would earn $100,000 for transporting the group of undocumented migrants who were inside the stifling trailer.

As he took off to start the three-hour drive from Laredo to San Antonio in early June 2020, he found himself almost surrounded by local and federal police. Investigators from the Department of Homeland Security were on the trail of a human smuggling organization and had the truck under surveillance, according to court documents in the case reviewed by Noticias Telemundo.

The authorities found 46 migrants inside the trailer, including several from Mexico who said they had crossed the border days before. John pleaded guilty in court to transferring undocumented persons and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Police and other first responders work the scene where officials say dozens of people have been found dead and multiple others were taken to hospitals with heat-related illnesses after a semitrailer containing suspected migrants was found, Monday, June 27, 2022, in San Antonio.
Police and other first responders work the scene where dozens of people were found dead inside a truck in San Antonio in 2022. A total of 53 adults and children died from that smuggling incident. Eric Gay / AP file

He told Noticias Telemundo he felt as if he had "sold his soul" and was afraid his wife would leave him. John spent 25 months in jail and was released on parole in August 2022.

'People are the new drug'

Human smuggling is on the rise, according to current and former officials who spoke to Noticias Telemundo.

“People are the new drug — there is an opportunity to make much more money than in drugs. And really the punishment is not so severe when they are people. It is less risky,” John said. “If they catch you with a kilo of cocaine it’s 20 years. ... They gave me three and a half years. If you know that, it becomes easier for you,” he said.

Of all the smuggling cases analyzed by Noticias Telemundo, more than half occurred in or near Laredo, primarily at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 35 north of the city. This highway is the main artery for commercial traffic to the interior of the country, and between 14,000 and 19,000 vehicles a day are currently inspected at this checkpoint, according to experts.

Laredo, a border city of 256,000 and the largest port by volume of commercial land traffic in North America, is the epicenter of these operations.

Arizona border agents found nine migrants traveling concealed in a cattle trailer, on the mezzanine of the trailer, lying on cardboard and dirt. on Oct. 5, 2022.
Arizona border agents found nine people concealed on the mezzanine of a cattle trailer, lying amid cardboard and dirt in 2022.U.S. Border Patrol file

There are also hundreds of transport companies operating in the city, as well as warehouses, distribution centers, large parking lots and service centers full of trucks.

Noticias Telemundo analyzed about one hundred court cases involving trucks transporting migrants in the last five years, most of them in Texas. On average, the drivers received prison sentences of about three and a half years. They do vary depending on the seriousness of the crime and the driver’s background. James Matthew Bradley was sentenced to life in prison for the death of 10 migrants in San Antonio in 2017.

Because of strict controls at border ports, which use X-ray imaging systems, it's difficult for trucks to smuggle people from Mexico into the U.S. So the smuggling occurs mainly on U.S. soil once people have crossed the border.

The greatest risk is for the migrants, who don't always get to their intended destinations alive. “We don’t know how many people have died, they let them die and we don’t know what they do with their bodies,” said Arístides Jiménez, a former special agent for Homeland Security Investigations.

On June 27, 2022, weeks before John was released from prison, 53 people died trapped in a truck traveling from Laredo to San Antonio, the worst human smuggling tragedy in U.S. history. The driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., pleaded not guilty and will be tried in September.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to inquiries from Noticias Telemundo on how many trucks carrying migrants are stopped each year. But so far this year, border agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector have intercepted more than a hundred trucks that were illegally transporting migrants.

The lack of resources and personnel to check all the vehicles, the high cost of screening commercial traffic and the aggressiveness of criminal groups — who even recruit drivers who don't know how to drive trucks — serve as fuel driving this macabre and often deadly business, according to official documents and interviews.

‘There we saw death'

In most cases, migrants don't know that they will be transferred in trailers until they get into the containers where, after paying thousands of dollars and suffering threats from coyotes, they travel in the dark for hours, with almost no oxygen, amid temperatures that can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit and with no possibility of opening the doors, according to Jiménez.

“Most of the time they don’t give them a chance to react. ... Once the trailer is closed there’s no way out," Jiménez said. “People who have lost their lives, many times you notice their hands and fingers bleeding because they tried to open a hole in the wood looking for air."

Ecuadorian Enzon Eras, 36, made a brutal journey aboard several trailers in 2005, first through Mexico and then from Laredo to San Antonio, as he told Noticias Telemundo from Spain, where he now lives with his family.

Image taken by an X-ray machine that reveals the presence of people inside a trailer. Experts believe that it is necessary to equip checkpoints on border roads with more technology.
Image taken by an X-ray machine that reveals the presence of people inside a trailer. Experts believe that it is necessary to equip checkpoints on border roads with more technology.U.S. Border Patrol

“We had to get to Nuevo Laredo,” he said, “They had ropes and people were standing. That trailer had ventilation. But I don’t know what happened. ... That air went out. ... People began to despair, to jump, to want to break the roof of the trailer. We reached and we couldn’t break through the roof. We pushed people to break it, to make a hole at the top, it was impossible .”

"There we saw death," he said.

A deadly — and lucrative — business

Both truckers and investigators say drug cartels in Mexico have taken over on the U.S. side. “It is a business in which they can make a lot of money. ... They are organizing everything like never before,” said Roberto Balli, a Laredo attorney who each year defends between 10 and 20 arrested truckers.

According to Balli, between 2021 and 2022 the number of people transported in each truck has also increased. “We are seeing up to 100 or 150 people in a box and that is something that has not been seen before,” he said.

According to Erik Estrada, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, “We have seen this year that there has been an increase in this type of crime." This upward trend was confirmed by Timothy J. Tubbs, former deputy special agent for Homeland Security Investigations who was in charge in Laredo for five years and until he retired in January 2022.

A long line of tractor trailers await entry into the U.S. from Mexico at the Otay Mesa, Calif., port of entry, June 22, 2016.
A long line of tractor trailers await entry into the U.S. from Mexico at the Otay Mesa, Calif., port of entry, in 2016. Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Border Patrol file

"The trailers have always been used, but not as much as now,” said Tubbs.

Balli believes that there are now fewer Texan drivers willing to do this type of work, the result of an aggressive deterrence campaign by authorities who have warned truckers they could lose their commercial licenses — which are expensive and difficult to get —  if they're convicted of transporting migrants illegally.

But smugglers take advantage of drivers' economic situations. In December 2021, Crispín de la Rosa, a driver who was stopped in Sarita, Texas, with 24 migrants in a trailer that was also carrying watermelons, told agents that he agreed to drive the truck to Houston for $600 because he had been unemployed for months and needed to help his elderly mother, according to court documents.

Smugglers typically seek out U.S. drivers or drivers with green cards who are licensed to drive commercial vehicles, presuming that this will make it easier for them to pass through highway checkpoints, according to Balli. They're often recruited at truck stops. However, given the shortage of willing drivers, they've also turned to foreign drivers, even some without licenses or with suspended permits or who don’t even know how to drive trucks.

Most drivers who are arrested are making the smuggling trip for the first time, Balli said. “I think it’s not easy to do. ... They get into this kind of trouble and lose everything. They lose their family, their home, they suffer many consequences for this. And if they have good luck there are no injuries or deaths."

LAREDO, TEXAS – U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehend a large number of individuals inside a tractor-trailer during a failed human smuggling attempt in north Laredo, Texas.

The event occurred on the evening of July 13, when a tractor hauling a white trailer approached the U.S. Highway 83 checkpoint. During an immigration inspection of the driver and passenger, both U.S. citizens, the driver readily admitted that there were people inside the trailer. Upon opening the trailer, agents found 35 individuals who were illegally in the United States from the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The inside trailer temperature was recorded at 126.1 degrees Fahrenheit at the time the individuals were discovered. All were evaluated and offered medical attention by a Border Patrol emergency medical technician. All subjects were placed under arrest, to include the U.S. citizen driver and passenger, pending further investigation by Homeland Security Investigations Special Agents. Despite the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, smugglers continue to endanger the lives of individuals they exploit and the health and safety of our Nation. U.S. Border Patrol agents strive to prevent the flow of illegal immigration and slow the spread of COVID-19.
A group of migrants were found inside a tractor-trailer during a failed human smuggling attempt in north Laredo, Texas, in 2020.

According to Estrada, sometimes smugglers load several trucks with migrants hoping that if one is stopped at a checkpoint, the agents will divert their attention so that the other two can pass. “Usually they load one as bait,” he said.

Most trucks are intercepted by border agents or local police at night. For the most part (42% of the time), trained dogs sniff out the people inside the trailers, though sometimes smugglers use ploys to confuse the smell. In the case of the 53 migrants who died in San Antonio last year, police reported that they wore meat seasoning on their skin to hide their scent.

The Border Patrol inspection post on Interstate 35 north of Laredo has six primary inspection lanes, but only three for large trucks. The lack of space causes long lines and in recent months has led the Border Patrol to make sporadic closures to expedite traffic, allowing vehicles to move freely without being checked.

Border Patrol did not respond to questions about the quick inspections it conducts to ease the long lines of vehicles on I-35.

The truck in which the 53 migrants suffocated a year ago avoided that checkpoint and went undetected.

The same thing happened with a truck in which 10 people who were being smuggled died in San Antonio in 2017. Manuel Martínez Esparza, one of the survivors of that tragedy, told Telemundo News that all the migrants were awake when they passed the I-35 checkpoint, but agents did not search the trailer's interior. Shortly after, conditions got really bad.

Manuel Martínez, seen here in Zacatecas, Mexico, where he currently lives, was in a coma but survived a 2017 journey in a tractor trailer in Texas, where 10 people, including his brother Ricardo, died.  Credit, Damià Bonmatí, Noticias Telemundo.
Manuel Martínez Esparza, seen here in Zacatecas, Mexico, where he currently lives, ended up in a coma but survived a 2017 journey in a tractor trailer in Texas, where 10 people, including his brother Ricardo, died.Damià Bonmatí / Noticias Telemundo

"They began to faint, people shouted that it was better that they open up for us and that the migra (immigration authorities) catches us, that they take us out of the truck, that they open the door," Martínez said in a phone call from Zacatecas, Mexico, where he lives. "A person was going with a knife hitting the truck to make a hole. People were shouting that their relatives had fainted, the ladies crying for their fainted children.”

The truck was left in a Walmart parking lot, where an employee discovered them. Martínez was in a coma and woke up in the hospital weeks later. His brother Ricardo died in the sweltering trailer.

When the 53 people died in San Antonio last year, Martínez began to "relive" the similar incident that resulted in his brother's death. "It is something very sad, very ugly. That’s something you always have in your mind.”

Pushing for changes

In an April 2018 congressional hearing, Kevin McAleenan, then Customs and Border Protection commissioner under President Donald Trump, acknowledged the need to improve conditions at the I-35 checkpoint.

However, until June of last year, when the 53 migrants in San Antonio died, the border post's modernization was still pending.

The Biden administration recently pledged funds to expand the checkpoint, $165 million of the project's total budget. But it's not clear when the expansion could be ready, according to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose congressional district includes Laredo.

Following the death of the 53 people in the San Antonio truck, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the creation of new checkpoints on Texas highways. These random checks are sometimes effective in detecting trucks that have bypassed checkpoints. On January 11, 2022, a Texas patrol car parked on the side of highway I-35, one mile north of the inspection booth, discovered 28 migrants during a traffic stop.

Strengthening the I-35 inspection point is one of the main points in the fight against people smugglers, but it is far from being the definitive solution to the problem, which may not have one, according to the authorities and experts consulted.

Balli believes that there will always be drivers willing to drive a truck full of people, even if prison sentences increase. “There will always be someone who is going to be more desperate, who is going to need more money," he said.

“If we are looking for a magical solution, in my opinion, there is none,” said Cuellar. He's proposing a series of measures that range from expanding inspection points and investing in technology — he spoke about machines that detect heartbeats from a person hiding in a truck — to sending more officers onto the roads and bolstering police intelligence work.

Former Laredo Mayor Pete Sáenz said comprehensive immigration reform would help. “We know we need workers, especially in the area of agriculture — the ideal would be laws that allow people to pass legally,” he said. "Both parties have had enough opportunities, but it's not done.”

In the meantime, the quick money will continue to tempt drivers.

“I got used to the double life — one feels a need to make more money," said Juan from prison.

 As for John, he said his wife forgave him after his conviction, but he regrets having accepted the smuggling job because prison time is a “stigma” that will drag down the rest of his life.

“I look in the mirror and I can’t look myself in the eye," he said, calling himself an as----. "Everyone thinks you are a thug.”

An earlier version of this story was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.