Two men could face the death penalty as part of a federal investigation into the deaths of 53 migrants who perished after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer in the sweltering San Antonio heat this week, the Justice Department said Wednesday, describing the deadliest human smuggling event in U.S. history.
Texas native Homero Zamorano, the alleged truck driver, was arrested Wednesday on criminal charges connected to his alleged involvement in the deadly smuggling campaign. If convicted, the 45-year-old Pasadena resident faces up to life in prison, or the possibility of the death penalty, according to the DOJ's press release.
When authorities responded to the scene on Monday, they spotted Zamorano hiding in the brush after attempting to flee the scene, according to the press release. He was then detained by San Antonio Police Department officers.
Federal law enforcement traced Zamorano back to the abandoned truck using surveillance footage from U.S. Border Patrol that showed the tractor-trailer crossing through an immigration checkpoint in the Laredo sector. The driver in the video — seen wearing a black shirt with stripes and a hat — matched Zamorano's appearance, officials said.
Christian Martinez, 28, was also charged after federal law enforcement officials executed a search warrant on a cell phone belonging to Zamorano. Investigators found communications between him and Martinez in which they discussed the smuggling attempt, according to the release.
San Antonio police officers and federal law enforcement from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) — a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — responded to the scene of the suspected human smuggling event on Monday, after a municipal worker heard cries for help and encountered the trailer with its doors partially ajar. Police received multiple 911 calls from concerned citizens, according to the release.
Authorities found 64 migrants suspected of entering the United States without authorization at the scene, including multiple victims still inside the tractor-trailer — which investigators found was registered to a residence in San Antonio — and in the nearby brush.
The number of migrants who died as a result of being abandoned in the truck without air conditioning or water rose to 53 on Wednesday, according to the Bexar County Medical Examiner.
More than a dozen others – including children – were transported to local hospitals with heat-related injuries. As of Wednesday afternoon, 11 people remained hospitalized, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Craig Larrabee, an HSI special agent in charge in San Antonio investigating the incident, called it "eye-opening" and "horrific" in an interview.
"This is the highest casualty event related to human smuggling in U.S. history," he told CBS News.
Larrabee said his agency has recorded an increase in transnational smuggling networks using tractor-trailers to transport large groups of migrants who entered the country unlawfully.
"You have organizations that simply do not care about the safety of the individuals they're transporting," he added. "It's a commodity."
Earlier this week, Juan Claudio D'Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D'Luna-Bilbao, 48, both citizens of Mexico, were arrested on separate criminal charges of possession of firearms. Federal prosecutors have requested that both men be held without bond. The men each face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines if convicted. The two made initial appearances before the U.S. Magistrate in San Antonio on Monday, and are expected back in court Friday morning, for their respective detention hearings.
All four defendants remain in federal custody. Zamorano is slated to appear before the U.S. Magistrate in San Antonio on Thursday. No court dates have been set for Martinez, who was arrested Tuesday in Palestine and awaits transfer to the Western District of Texas.
First published on June 29, 2022 / 9:56 PM
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