Smugglers affiliated with a brutal Mexican drug cartel escorted dozens of illegal immigrants across the Rio Grande into Texas, where they were packed into a semi-trailer that would become a deadly mobile oven as it traveled north to San Antonio.
A survivor of the smuggling operation told federal investigators that people connected to Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most notorious drug trafficking gangs, brought him and 28 other people into the U.S. from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
“He was told by the smuggler that people linked to the Zetas would charge 11,000 Mexican pesos for protection and 1,500 Mexican pesos to cross by raft since the river ran deep in that area,” reads the criminal complaint filed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. “The money was collected and his group crossed the river by raft in three trips.”
The unidentified man was one of more than 100 migrants crammed into a semi-trailer somewhere near Laredo, Texas. By the time authorities discovered the trailer in a Walmart parking lot early Sunday morning, eight people had perished and dozens more had sustained life-threatening heat injuries.
The rig’s air conditioning unit had broken, turning it into a giant broiler that literally cooked people alive in the South Texas summer heat. According to the criminal complaint against truck driver James Matthew Bradley Jr., the illegal immigrants were forced to take turns breathing through a hole as oxygen ran out inside the trailer.
“Later, people started having trouble breathing and some started to pass out,” ICE agents wrote. “People began hitting the trailer walls and making noise to get the driver’s attention. The driver never stopped. People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation and they started taking turns breathing from the hole.”
Bradley, who has been charged with one count of transporting illegal aliens, claims he was unaware there were people inside the trailer until he pulled into a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio and heard cries for help. When Bradley opened the trailer door, he was surprised when “he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” states the criminal complaint.
Between 30 and 40 people then ran across to the parking lot to six waiting SUVs, which left as soon as they were filled with passengers, investigators say.
Authorities found a total of 39 people in or around the trailer, including eight dead bodies. Two more victims later died of heat injuries at the hospital.
Human smugglers commonly use semi-trailers to transport large groups of illegal immigrants north from the U.S.-Mexico border. The San Antonio discovery is reminiscent of an incident from 2003 in which 19 people died of dehydration and hyperthermia after they were abandoned in a semi-trailer at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas. The driver in that case, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, was convicted on human smuggling charges and and is currently serving a 34-year prison term. (RELATED: Texas Officials Say Human Smuggling Deaths Show Need For Anti-Sanctuary Law)
“These human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat,” Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement following Sunday’s discovery. “Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life.”
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