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3 men in custody after deaths of 51 people found in San Antonio truck

Honduras victims.JPG
Nick Wagner
/
The Texas Tribune
A tractor-trailer found near Lackland Air Force Base on Monday contained the bodies of at least 50 dead people, along with 16 others who were taken to hospitals, local officials in San Antonio said.

The victims included migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Most were men; five were minors.

San Antonio officials said Tuesday that the number of migrants who have died after being trapped in a tractor-trailer on Monday has reached 51 after another migrant died at a local hospital. Forty-six migrants were declared dead at the scene, and five of the 16 migrants found alive in the sweltering trailer have since died after being taken to hospitals.

Local officials said that 39 of the victims were men and 12 were women. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted that the dead include 22 Mexicans, seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans. Officials are still trying to determine the identities and nationalities of some of the victims; Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores said 34 of the victims have been identified so far. She did not reveal any other information about the victims during a Tuesday press conference in San Antonio.

News4SanAntonio reported Tuesday that five children are among the dead. A man from Guatemala has confirmed the death of his two daughters, Griselda and Carla, whose ages were not disclosed.

Officials with Homeland Security Investigations have taken over the investigation into the migrants’ deaths. On Tuesday, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told The New York Times that police caught the driver of the tractor-trailer in a nearby field after he fled on foot and he is now in federal custody.

Federal court documents filed on Tuesday say that police went to an address in San Antonio listed on the tractor-trailer's registration and stopped a Ford pickup truck that was leaving the property. They arrested Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and charged both with illegal possession of firearms after finding numerous firearms in the home. Both are Mexican citizens in the country illegally after overstaying tourist visas, the documents state. Both are in federal custody.

In a statement, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, Ashley C. Hoff, said of the dead and hospitalized: “All were the apparent victims of human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of human life. The South Texas heat is brutal this time of year, especially given the recent record-high temperatures. We will continue to work with the Homeland Security Investigations and the local responders to identify and bring those who were responsible for this tragedy to justice.”

The owners of a South Texas trucking company said that the tractor-trailer that was transporting the migrants — which was parked in a semi-rural area on the city's southwest side — was “cloned,” the San Antonio Express-News reported Tuesday. The truck in San Antonio had the same color and identifying numbers from the federal Department of Transportation and the Texas DOT as a Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting truck, the Alamo-based trucking company’s owners said. But the cloned truck does not bear the company’s logo, as the business’ other trucks do.

One of the owners said the company’s truck has not been to San Antonio recently and has been hauling grain from Harlingen to Progreso.

“Our [refrigerated trailer] is sitting right in the yard,” Felipe Betancourt Jr. told the Express-News. “That one in San Antonio is not our trailer.”

Investigators confirmed through a diagnostic test of the truck’s computer that it does not belong to Betancourt’s company, said John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association.

When Esparza asked trucking company owners on Tuesday if anyone had ever copied ID numbers from their trucks onto another truck — which is essentially vehicular identity theft — they said “they’d never heard of it,” Esparza said.

“It's so rare, but then the real question is, how would you know?” he added. “Unless something bad happened and you got a call from law enforcement saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got your truck here and we're going to impound your truck,' and you say, ‘That’s not my truck. I’m looking at my truck.’”

Migrant deaths near the border are common as people attempt to cross forbidding terrain without adequate water. Before Monday, the worst smuggling-related mass fatality in recent Texas history was in 2003, when 19 people died after being trapped in an unrefrigerated dairy truck for hundreds of miles.

President Joe Biden called the incident "horrifying and heartbreaking" on Tuesday and blamed "smugglers or human traffickers who have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit.

“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,” Biden said in a written statement. He also highlighted what he called “a first-of-its kind anti-smuggling campaign with our regional partners” that he announced earlier this month. Biden said the effort has resulted in more than 2,400 arrests in its first three months “and that work will only intensify in the months ahead.”

Biden decried “political grandstanding around tragedy” a day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed the deaths on what he called the president’s “deadly open border policies.”

Clay-Flores also slammed Abbott for politicizing the tragedy.

“While bodies were still being removed, and others being taken to local hospitals, he chose to be heartless and point the finger. Shame on our governor,” she said. “His words were also a complete contradiction to state that this tragedy was due to open border policies. If there was such a policy as open borders, we wouldn’t have had over 50 human lives trying to enter this country the way they did. We wouldn’t be mourning the deaths of so many people who were simply seeking a better life.”

At his daily press conference Tuesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador expressed condolences to the families of those who died and said his government will be investigating the deaths of 22 Mexican citizens and helping their families return their bodies home.

“This is bitter proof that we must continue to insist on supporting people so that they do not have to leave their villages to look for a life on the other side of the border,” López Obrador said.

In a tweet, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei called for tougher criminal penalties for human smugglers: “It is inexcusable that innocent lives continue to be lost to migrant smuggling! My condolences to the families of the deceased in Texas.”

Pope Francis called for prayers for the victims in San Antonio — as well as the 18 migrants who died Friday while trying to enter Spain from Morocco.

“Let us #PrayTogether for these brothers and sisters who died following their hope of a better life; and for ourselves, may the Lord might open our hearts so these misfortunes never happen again,” the pope tweeted Tuesday.