SAN ANTONIO — Victims have been found with no identification documents at all and in one case a stolen ID. Remote villages lack phone service to reach family members and determine the whereabouts of missing migrants. Fingerprint data has to be shared and matched by different governments.
More than a day after the discovery of 51 dead migrants in a stifling trailer in San Antonio, few identities of the victims have been made public, illustrating the challenges authorities face in tracing people who cross borders clandestinely.
By Tuesday afternoon, medical examiners had potentially identified 34 of the victims, said Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, who represents the district where the truck was abandoned.
Those identities were not yet confirmed pending additional steps, such as fingerprints, and she described it as a challenge with no timeline on when the process might be finished.
“It’s a tedious, tedious, sad, difficult process,” she said.
The bodies were discovered Monday afternoon on the outskirts of San Antonio in what is believed to be the nation’s deadliest smuggling episode on the U.S.-Mexico border. More than a dozen people were taken to hospitals, including four children. Three people have been arrested.
The tragedy occurred at a time when huge numbers of migrants have been coming to the U.S., many of them taking perilous risks to cross swift rivers and canals and scorching desert landscapes. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.
With little information about the victims, desperate families of migrants from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word of their loved ones.
Among the dead, 27 are believed to be of Mexican origin based on documents they were carrying, according to Rubén Minutti, the Mexico consul general in San Antonio. Several survivors were in critical condition with injuries such as brain damage and internal bleeding, he said. About 30 people had reached out to the Mexican Consulate looking for loved ones, officials said.
Guatemala’s foreign ministry said late Tuesday that it had confirmed two hospitalized Guatemalans and was working to identify three possible Guatemalans among the dead. Honduras’ foreign relations ministry said it was working to confirm the identities of four people who died in the truck and carried Honduran papers.
Eva Ferrufino, spokeswoman for Honduras’ foreign ministry, said her agency is working with the Honduras consulate in south Texas to match names and fingerprints and complete identifications.
The process is painstaking because among the pitfalls are fake or stolen documents.
Mexico’s foreign affairs secretary identified two people Tuesday who were hospitalized in San Antonio on Tuesday morning. But it turned out that one of the identification cards he shared on Twitter had been stolen last year in the southern state of Chiapas.
Haneydi Antonio Guzman, 23, was safe and sound in a mountain community more than 1,300 miles away from San Antonio on Tuesday when she began receiving messages from family and friends. There is no phone signal there, but she has internet access.
'My relatives were contacting me worried'
Journalists started showing up at her parents’ home in Escuintla — the address on her ID that was stolen and found in the truck — expecting to find her worried relatives.
“That’s me on the ID, but I am not the person that was in the trailer and they say is hospitalized,” she said.
“My relatives were contacting me worried, asking where I was,” Antonio Guzman said. “I told them I was fine, that I was in my house and I clarified it on by (Facebook page).”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard deleted the original tweet identifying her without further comment. The other hospitalized victim Ebrard identified Tuesday turned out to be accurate.
In the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, municipal officials in San Miguel Huautla were traveling to the community of 32-year-old José Luis Guzmán Vásquez late Tuesday to find out if his mother wanted to travel to San Antonio to be with him in the hospital.
Manuel Velasco López, San Miguel Huautla’s municipal secretary, said that another cousin had been traveling with Guzmán Vásquez and was now considered missing.
Yet another cousin, Alejandro López, told Milenio television that their family worked in farming and construction and that they migrated because “we don’t have anything but weaving hats, palms and handicrafts.”
Growing corn, wheat and beans is what we do in this region and that leads to a lot of our people emigrating and going to the United States,” he said.
Miguel Barbosa, the governor of neighboring Puebla state, set off a scramble for information in the town of Izucar de Matamoros on Tuesday when he said publicly that two of the dead hailed from there.
In the heavily migrant town, everyone was asking themselves if their friends or neighbors were among the dead found in the freight truck in Texas. Rumors abounded, but the city government said no dead had been confirmed from Izucar.
But going to the United States is such a tradition that most youths here at least consider it.
“All of the young people start to think about going (to the U.S.) as soon as they turn 18,” said migrant activist Carmelo Castañeda, who works with the nonprofit Casa del Migrante. “If there aren’t more visas, our people are going to keep dying.”
Migrants typically pay $8,000 to $10,000 to be taken across the border and loaded into a tractor-trailer and driven to San Antonio, where they transfer to smaller vehicles for their final destinations across the United States, said Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
Conditions vary widely, including how much water passengers get and whether they are allowed to carry cellphones, Larrabee said.
Authorities think the truck discovered Monday had mechanical problems when it was left next to a railroad track in an area of San Antonio surrounded by auto scrapyards that brush up against a busy freeway, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
'For the smugglers, we the migrants are not human'
San Antonio has been a recurring scene of tragedy and desperation in recent years involving migrants in semitrailers.
Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck parked at a San Antonio Walmart. In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of the city. More than 50 migrants were found alive in a trailer in 2018, driven by a man who said he was to be paid $3,000 and was sentenced to more than five years in prison.
Other tragedies have occurred long before migrants reached the U.S. In December, more than 50 died when a semitrailer rolled over on a highway in southern Mexico. In October, Mexican authorities reported finding 652 migrants packed into six trailers stopped at a military checkpoint near the border.
During a vigil held Tuesday evening in the rain at a San Antonio park, many of the more than 50 people who attended expressed sadness, frustration and anger at the deaths and what they described as a broken immigration system.
Back in Puebla, farmer Juan Sánchez Carrillo, 45, was sickened when he heard the news of the deaths in Texas.
He himself narrowly escaped death, when he and his friends ran away from dozing migrant rustlers in the mountains near Otay Mesa near San Diego. The criminals — who Sanchez Carrillo believes were in cahoots with smugglers who brought him over the border — pointed rifles at the group of 35 migrants and threatened to kill them unless they came up with $1,000 each.
“For the smugglers, we the migrants are not human,” Sánchez Carrillo said. “For them we are no more than merchandise.”