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Four Charged in Connection with Truck Smuggling Deaths of 53 Migrants; Driver Could Face Death Penalty

Mexican officials said Zamorano was pretending to be one of the injured migrants when law enforcement arrived on scene.

The driver of the tractor-trailer in which dozens of migrants’ bodies were found was arrested Wednesday as the death toll rose to 53 migrants who were being smuggled inside the sweltering truck that was discovered Monday evening in southwest San Antonio.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said Wednesday that Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, of Pasadena, Texas, originally from Brownsville, Texas, was charged with one count of alien smuggling resulting in death, for which he could receive life in prison or the death penalty.

San Antonio Police Department officers who were first on the scene “discovered multiple individuals, some still inside the tractor trailer, some on the ground and in nearby brush, many of them deceased and some of them incapacitated,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. The officers were “led to the location of an individual, later identified as Zamorano, who was observed hiding in the brush after attempting to abscond.”

Zamorano’s black-and-white striped shirt and hat that he was wearing at the time of his arrest matched his clothing in the border checkpoint footage from a few hours earlier, provided to Homeland Security Investigations by Laredo Sector Border Patrol, the U.S. Attorney’s Office added.

Mexican officials held a press conference Wednesday in which they said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that Zamorano was pretending to be one of the injured migrants when law enforcement arrived on scene. The San Antonio Express News cited a law enforcement source as saying Zamorano was “very high on meth when he was arrested nearby and had to be taken to the hospital.”

Mexican officials, who have launched their own investigation into the incident, also released what they said was a map of the route the truck driver took from the border to San Antonio.

Investigation of Zamorano’s phone led police to Christian Martinez, 28, who was arrested Tuesday in Palestine, Texas, and charged with one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death, for which he could receive life in prison or the death penalty. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said that “communications occurred between Zamorano and Martinez concerning the smuggling event.”

Martinez had an initial court appearance Wednesday in Tyler, Texas, and was being transported to San Antonio for further proceedings.

Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, both citizens of Mexico, were arrested and had initial court appearances Monday after the tractor-trailer’s registration directed police to a residence in San Antonio. D’Luna-Mendez and D’Luna-Bilbao were stopped by officers after leaving the residence in separate trucks. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said D’Luna-Bilbao had a handgun in his truck’s center console and more firearms were found at the home. Both men were charged with one count of possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the U.S. The criminal complaints against the two said both overstayed their visas.

At the scene where Zamorano’s tractor-trailer was parked, 48 people were found dead. Of those, 22 were Mexican nationals, seven Guatemalan nationals, two Honduran nationals and 17 of unknown origin but suspected to be undocumented non-citizens, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, adding that HSI “confirmed the undocumented status of the deceased individuals by utilizing a mobile fingerprint device.” Sixteen were transported to local hospitals, where five have died.

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said at a Monday evening press conference that when first responders arrived they saw a body outside of the trailer and could see more inside after opening the doors. He said all of the injured were conscious at the time they were taken to hospitals. “The patients that we saw were hot to the touch,” Hood said. “They were suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion, no signs of water in the vehicle. It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer but there was no visible working A/C unit on that rig.”

Hood said his department has turned its attention to the behavioral health of the first responders who tended to the mass-casualty scene.

“We’re not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies,” the fire chief said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last tweeted about the “tragic loss of life” on Monday, calling human smugglers “callous individuals who have no regard for the vulnerable people they exploit and endanger in order to make a profit” and vowing to work with partners “to hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable and continue to take action to disrupt smuggling networks.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that Texas Department of Public Safety “strike teams” of 20 troopers apiece would be deployed to the Eagle Pass region to deter, detect, and arrests migrants crossing illegally into the country. Texas DPS is also launching new inspection checkpoints targeting semi-trucks.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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