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At Least 51 Migrants Die in ‘Horrifying’ Smuggling Truck; HSI Takes Lead on Investigation

Fire chief said there were "no signs of water in the vehicle" and "it was a refrigerated tractor-trailer but there was no visible working A/C unit on that rig."

Homeland Security Investigations has taken the lead in the probe of how dozens of migrants were found inside a sweltering tractor-trailer in southwest San Antonio, resulting in the deaths of at least 50 people.

“On June 27, #HSI responded to a call from @SATXPolice regarding an alleged human smuggling event involving a tractor trailer on Quintana Road near Cassin Road. Upon arrival, we confirmed more than 40 deceased individuals,” HSI headquarters tweeted late Monday. “@HSI_SanAntonio has initiated an investigation with the support of @SATXPolice. Details will be released as they are available. The criminal investigation remains ongoing.”

“HSI continues its enforcement efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our communities and to address the serious public safety threat posed by human smuggling organizations,” the agency added. “To report suspicious activity, call the HSI Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2ICE. All calls are confidential.”

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrand said a consul had been dispatched to the area and reported that 46 bodies were found in the truck and 16 people were taken to four area hospitals, including 4 minors. The consul, who was visiting the hospitals where the injured were taken, said police told him three people were in custody.

Ebrand tweeted an update this morning that four of the injured had passed away: “50 deceased. 22 Mexicans. 7 Guatemalans. 2 Hondurans. The others are yet to be identified. We are in mourning. Huge tragedy. Mexico joins investigations in the US, coordinated with DHS.” He later tweeted that Mexico’s Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero is opening an investigation into the incident and is sending a team to Texas.

Later today, the death toll was up to 51: 39 men and 12 women, with the ages not yet reported.

San Antonio Police Chief Bill McManus said the first call came in shortly before 6 p.m. A worker from a nearby building heard a cry for help, came over to investigate, found the trailer with its doors partially opened, “and found a number of deceased individuals inside,” McManus said at a late-night press conference, adding that he did not know yet whether the three individuals in custody were directly connected to the incident.

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said 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.

“I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of life today and am praying for those still fighting for their lives,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tweeted. “Far too many lives have been lost as individuals – including families, women, and children – take this dangerous journey.”

“ICE @HSI_HQ has initiated an investigation with the support of @SATXPolice and @CBP. Human smugglers are callous individuals who have no regard for the vulnerable people they exploit and endanger in order to make a profit,” Mayorkas added. “We will work alongside our partners to hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable and continue to take action to disrupt smuggling networks.”

“Horrified at the tragic loss of life near San Antonio,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus tweeted. “This speaks to the desperation of migrants who would put their lives in the hands of callous human smugglers who show no regard for human life. We’ll be working w/ our partners to assist in every way w/ the investigation.”

The White House released a statement from President Biden calling the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking.”“While we are still learning all the facts about what happened and the Department of Homeland Security has the lead for the investigation, initial reports are that this tragedy was caused by smugglers or human traffickers who have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit,” Biden said. “This incident underscores the need to go after the multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths.”

The president pledged to “continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry.”

This story was updated at 6 p.m. EST to increase the death toll

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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