Most of the migrants killed when the truck they were crammed into overturned in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas were from Guatemala, officials have said, as witnesses and survivors recalled the horror of one of the worst roadside crashes involving migrants in Mexico in years.
A truck carrying an estimated 166 people crashed outside the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez on Thursday evening, killing 54 people and injuring 58 others, according to state officials in Chiapas.
Chiapas is a main transit point for migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the United States.
Mexican authorities identified 95 Guatemalans among the people involved in the crash, as well as three people from the Dominican Republic, a Honduran, a Mexican and an Ecuadorian.
Footage aired on local media showed bodies draped in white sheets lining the roadside, and survivors bleeding or with broken bones crying out in pain.
Andres, a migrant from Izabal, Guatemala, said he and his brother-in-law had decided together to make the dangerous trip north to the US. Andres was tossed from the truck as it rolled and broke apart; his brother-in-law died in the wreckage.
“We made the decision to come together, and we cheered each other on,” Andres told The Associated Press. “But now, it’s terrible – he’s not going to come back with me alive.”
Eighteen-year-old Sabina Lopez, who lives near the scene of the crash, told the AFP news agency that she saw a man pleading with his wounded companion. “Don’t go to sleep, don’t close your eyes,” she recalled him saying. “Remember what you promised your mother! Hold on.”
Another resident, Isaias Diaz, who arrived 15 minutes after the crash, described a ghastly scene, with “a lot of people lying around, some of them were already dead”. Diaz said he saw many people, including children, with injuries. “The crying, the pain, the desperation. It was a very ugly atmosphere,” he said.
Rescue workers who first arrived said they saw survivors fleeing for fear of being detained by immigration agents. One paramedic said some of those who hurried into surrounding neighbourhoods were bloodied or bruised but still limped away in their desperation to escape.
A young migrant from Guatemala who was in the truck and was being treated for a broken arm at a local hospital described a gruesome scene of screaming and blood after the truck crashed into the base of a steel pedestrian bridge.
“The ones who died were the ones who were up against the walls of the trailer,” the migrant, who did not want to give his name because he did not have proper documents in Mexico, told AP. “Thank God, we were in the middle, but the ones on the sides, they died.”
‘A sad day’
The incident comes amid rising tensions over the increasing number of migrants – most of whom are fleeing poverty, violence and instability in Central America – who have been travelling through Mexico in an attempt to reach the US border.
Many often cram inside large trucks organised by smugglers in dangerous conditions.
Record numbers of people have sought to enter the US through its southern border with Mexico in recent months, in part due to hopes that US President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to pursue more humane immigration policies would mean more lenient border rules.
But the vast majority have been detained and expelled back to Mexico this year as Biden kept in place many of the hardline policies of his predecessor Donald Trump.
“Today is a sad day for the families of many people,” the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Thursday in a tweet in Spanish. “The event that occurred today in Chiapas, Mexico exposes the risks that exist daily for thousands of people who seek a better life outside their communities of origin. We can do more for them.”
On Friday, the Mexican attorney general’s office said it would investigate the incident, and the National Institute of Migration said it was working to identify the dead, pay for funerals and help repatriate bodies. It said survivors would be allowed to stay in Mexico.
During a news conference on Friday, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called on the US to revise its immigration policies. He said he had urged the Biden administration to address the “root causes” of migration during his last visit to the US last month, but added that, “this is not a simple matter for President Biden”.
“We will continue to insist that the migration problem cannot be solved with coercive measures, but that migrants must be given work and opportunities to develop,” Lopez Obrador said.
Earlier, he expressed his condolences to the victims. “I deeply regret the tragedy caused by the overturning of a trailer in Chiapas carrying Central American migrants,” he said in a tweet. “It is very painful. I hug the families of the victims.”
The driver, who fled the scene, appeared to have been speeding when he lost control on the highway connecting the town of Chiapa de Corzo with the state capital Tuxtla Gutierrez, officials said.
The crash is one of several recent incidents in which migrants and asylum seekers have been killed or injured while travelling through Mexico.
Last month, 12 migrants died when two trucks crashed and burned in Chiapas, while in January, 16 Guatemalans and three Mexicans were found burned to death inside a truck with 113 bullet holes in the state of Tamaulipas, which borders the US.
Twelve members of an elite Mexican police unit were arrested in connection with that massacre.
Meanwhile, lists of people being treated in hospital published on social media showed dozens of Guatemalan migrants among the survivors of Thursday’s crash.
An unidentified Guatemalan man interviewed at the scene said when the trunk driver tried to negotiate the bend, the weight of the people inside caused the vehicle to flip over. “The trailer couldn’t handle the weight of people,” he said.