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All 53 bodies found in a San Antonio semi-truck have been identified

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, the coroner in Bexar County, Texas, finished identifying the 53 bodies found in a sweltering semitrailer in San Antonio. And Monday, one of the suspects accused of helping smuggle the migrants is expected to appear in court. Texas Public Radio's Joey Palacios has been following this story. Joey, thanks so much for being with us.

JOEY PALACIOS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And before we get to the court case, let's begin with the people who died in this tragedy, in this crime. What do we know about them by now?

PALACIOS: These were all fairly young people, mostly in their 20s and 30s. There were 13 women and girls. Earlier this week, Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores read the names in a tribute at the start of a county meeting.

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REBECA CLAY-FLORES: Fernando Gallegos Garcia, Pedro Telles Gonzalez, 16; Pascual Guachiac Sipac de Guatemala, 13 years old.

PALACIOS: Pascual Sipac and his 14-year-old cousin, Juan, were the youngest to die. For the Mexican victims, Mexico's air force began repatriating their bodies this week.

SIMON: I cannot imagine how horrific it must be to identify that many people. Please tell us about the work that the county medical examiner's office has been doing to make these identifications.

PALACIOS: This is the same medical examiner that identified the 19 children and two teachers killed in Uvalde about a month before. That's on top of the more than 5,300 people who have died in San Antonio from COVID-19 and just the day-to-day deaths. This is what Bexar County's chief medical examiner, Kimberley Molina, told the county's commissioners this week.

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KIMBERLEY MOLINA: These events and this workload takes a toll on our staff. And these unprecedented increases - we honestly cannot sustain this workload.

PALACIOS: She's actually worried that their caseload could put their accreditation at risk. The National Association of Medical Examiners limits the number of autopsies per forensic pathologist to 325 a year. Molina says her examiners are on track to exceed that with 400 autopsies each this year.

SIMON: And let us turn now to the court case. One of the four suspects who were arrested in connection with the semitrailer has a court appearance on Monday, I gather. What do we know about him and the charges he faces?

PALACIOS: A criminal complaint shows that Christian Martinez, who is expected in court, was texting the accused driver, Homero Zamorano. It says Martinez texted Zamorano the truck manifest and was asking him where he was on the day of the event. The complaint also says Martinez told a confidential informant that Zamorano didn't know that the air conditioning unit in the trailer stopped working. Zamorano is in custody. He waived a detention hearing last week. Both men face the death penalty or life in prison. It's not really clear what role the two others who were arrested may have played, but they were at the house where the trailer was registered.

SIMON: Can we say how often trucks are used to smuggle people into the U.S.?

PALACIOS: This is the deadliest smuggling accident in the U.S. that we know about, but we only know of the attempts where people are found. Just a few days after this incident, another truck was found in San Antonio with 13 migrants. San Antonio is a major smuggling corridor. Just adding up the numbers from press releases on the U.S. attorney's website for the Southern District of Texas - and that includes the busy port of Laredo - more than 870 people have been found in trailers since last October in South Texas. According to the press releases, some were packed on ice blocks, cooling broccoli, and one of the smugglers told authorities that he was hauling pig meat.

SIMON: Joey Palacios of Texas Public Radio - Joey, thank you so much.

PALACIOS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joey Palacios, Texas Public Radio