At least 46 people were found dead after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer on a remote back road in San Antonio in the latest tragedy to claim the lives of migrants smuggled across the border from Mexico to the US Sixteen people were hospitalised, including four children.
A city worker heard a cry for help from the truck shortly before 6pm Monday and discovered the gruesome scene, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said. Hours later, body bags lay spread on the ground near the trailer and bodies remained inside as authorities responded to the calamity.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the 46 people who had died had "families who were likely trying to find a better life".
"This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy," Nirenberg said.
At least 22 Mexicans were among the migrants found dead, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday, as he put the total number of fatalities at 50.
"It's a tremendous misfortune ... so far there are 50 dead: 22 from Mexico, seven from Guatemala, two from Honduras and 19 still without information about their nationality," the Mexican leader said at a morning press conference.
It's among the deadliest of the tragedies that have claimed thousands of lives in recent decades as people attempt to cross the US border from Mexico. Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of San Antonio.
The home countries of all of the migrants and how long they were abandoned on the side of the road were not immediately known.
"Our condolences," Roberto Velasco Alvarez, head of the North America department in Mexico's foreign relations department, said on Twitter. "All responsible will be brought to justice."
US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the "heartbreaking" deaths of the migrants, the White House said Tuesday.
"We're closely monitoring the absolutely horrific and heartbreaking reports out of San Antonio, Texas," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to the NATO summit in Madrid.
"The president has been briefed," she said.
Busy area for border crossings
South Texas has long been the busiest area for illegal border crossings. Migrants ride in vehicles through border patrol checkpoints to San Antonio, the closest major city, from which point they disperse across the United States.
Officers arrived to find a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially opened gate to the trailer. Three people were taken into custody, but it was unclear if they were definitively connected with human trafficking, McManus said. The trailer was gone Tuesday morning, but access to the area where it was found remained blocked.
Of the 16 taken to hospitals with heat-related illnesses, 12 were adults and four were children, said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood. The patients were hot to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, he said.
"They were suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion," Hood said. "It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible working AC unit on that rig."
Those in the trailer were part of a presumed attempt to smuggle migrants into the United States, and the investigation was being led by US homeland security investigations, McManus said.
Big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in US border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border. As crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks in the US, migrants were led through more perilous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Heat poses a serious danger, particularly when temperatures can rise severely inside vehicles. Weather in the San Antonio area was mostly cloudy Monday, but temperatures approached 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
Some advocates drew a link to the border policies of Biden's administration. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, wrote that he had been dreading such a tragedy for months.
"With the border shut as tightly as it is today for migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed into more and more dangerous routes. Truck smuggling is a way up," he wrote on Twitter.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican running for re-election, was blunt in a tweet about the Democratic president: "These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies."
Migrants - largely from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - have been expelled more than 2 million times under a Covid 19 pandemic-era rule in effect since March 2020 that denies them a chance to seek asylum but encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences for getting caught.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending September 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most are related to heat exposure.
CBP has not published a death tally for this year but said that the border patrol performed 14,278 "search-and-rescue missions" in a seven-month period through May, exceeding the 12,833 missions performed during the previous 12-month period and up from 5,071 the year before.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)