At least 50 people have been found dead inside a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, in what appears to be a human smuggling attempt along the United States-Mexico border.
Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said on Tuesday that at least 22 Mexican, seven Guatemalan and two Honduran nationals were identified among the dead.
San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood had previously said that 16 people found in the trailer on Monday were transported to the hospital for heat stroke and exhaustion. They included four minors.
“The patients we saw were hot to the touch. They were suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion. There were no signs of water in the vehicle,” he said.
“It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible air conditioning unit on that rig.”
Police Chief William McManus said a city worker at the scene was alerted to the situation by a cry for help shortly before 6pm on Monday (23:00 GMT). Officers arrived to find a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially opened gate to the trailer, he said.
The vehicle was found next to railway tracks in a remote area on the city’s southern outskirts, and McManus said three people were taken into custody over the incident.
Ebrard had earlier called the suffocation of the refugees and migrants a “tragedy in Texas” and said the local consulate was en route to the scene.
US President Joe Biden called the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking”.
The Department of Homeland Security was leading the investigation and “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,” he said in a statement shortly after arriving in Spain on the second stop of a trip in Europe.
“Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy,” Biden said, promising his administration would continue to do “everything possible” to halt smugglers and trafficking.
The numbers of migrants trying to cross the US-Mexico border has sharply increased since Biden became president.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, in a press conference, urged residents “to think compassionately and pray for the deceased, the ailing, the families.”
“And we hope that those responsible for putting these people in such inhumane conditions are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
Tragedia en Texas. Asfixiados en la caja del trailer según se informa. Cónsul en ruta al punto. Condolencias a las víctimas y sus familias. Aún no conocemos nacionalidades. https://t.co/4d7hDErHwo
— Marcelo Ebrard C. (@m_ebrard) June 28, 2022
Monday’s disaster may be one of the deadliest incidents of human smuggling along the US-Mexico border in recent decades.
The I-35 highway near where the truck was found runs through San Antonio from the Mexican border and is a popular smuggling corridor because of the large volume of truck traffic, Jack Staton, a former senior official with ICE’s investigative unit who retired in December, told Reuters news agency.
Ten people died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a Walmart in San Antonio, while in 2003, 19 people were found dead in a sweltering truck southeast of the city.
Temperatures in San Antonio, which is about 260 km (160 miles) from the Mexican border, swelled to a high of 39.4C (103F) on Monday with high humidity.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called Monday’s incident a “horrific human tragedy”.
“They had families and were likely trying to find a better life,” he said. “We hope those responsible for putting people through such inhumane conditions are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”