Two men were indicted Wednesday on federal charges in the deaths of 53 migrants who died after the tractor-trailer they were in was found abandoned in San Antonio last month, federal prosecutors said.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 46, and Christian Martinez, 28, had previously been charged, but a federal grand jury on Wednesday returned indictments against both that could result in life in prison or the death penalty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said.
The June 27 incident is believed to be the deadliest human smuggling cases in modern U.S. history.
Fifty adults and three children died after the vehicle was found in San Antonio, officials have said.
Zamorano, of Pasadena, Texas, and Martinez, of Palestine, Texas, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death, transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death, and other counts, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Those two counts carry up to life in prison or the death penalty, prosecutors said.
Attorneys representing both men did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday.
Zamorano matched the description and was wearing the same clothes as the driver of the vehicle, seen in surveillance video at an immigration checkpoint, prosecutors have said.
He was allegedly seen hiding in brush and was arrested by San Antonio police who responded to the truck, according to court documents.
Martinez’ phone showed he communicated with Zamorano, asking where he was, and a confidential informant allegedly told investigators that Martinez admitted being involved and that he identified the driver as “Homer,” according to a criminal complaint.
According to the criminal complaint, Martinez “said the driver was unaware the air conditioning unit stopped working and was the reason why the individuals died.”
The truck was found in an undeveloped area of southwest San Antonio near railroad tracks. A person who works in the area reported hearing a cry for help and spotted at least one body, officials have said.
Police and fire officials described arriving to find bodies inside the tractor-trailer, and patients who were hot to the touch.
In addition to the charges related to the deaths, both men were also indicted on one count each of conspiracy and transportation of illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy, prosecutors said. Those counts can carry up to 20 years in prison each.
Two other men arrested in connection with the investigation into the smuggling incident were indicted on weapons charges Wednesday, prosecutors said.
Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez are charged with one count each of possession of a firearm while unlawfully present in the United States, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
They are Mexican citizens who said they overstayed their visas, according to a criminal complaint previously filed against them.
The men were taken into custody in separate traffic stops after they left the San Antonio home listed on the registration for the tractor-trailer, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
A handgun was found in the truck D’Luna-Bilbao was driving, and other guns were found at that home, according to court documents.
Neither is charged in the human smuggling. The firearms charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Most of those who died were from Mexico and Guatemala. Of the 53, 26 were citizens of Mexico, 21 were citizens of Guatemala, and six were citizens of Honduras, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office said.
Their ages ranged from 13 to 55. Ten other adults and one child were injured, officials said.
In a 2003 case in Texas, 19 people died after being left inside an airtight truck-trailer, in what was then called the nation’s deadliest smuggling attempt.
Seventeen of the more than 70 people inside died before the abandoned truck was discovered, and two more people died later. The truck driver was sentenced to life in prison.