The 51 migrants who died of heat stroke and dehydration inside a trailer-truck abandoned on the side of a highway in San Antonio on Monday each paid upwards of $3,000 for the trip, according to two sources with knowledge of the agreement.
The smugglers advertised a “three month warranty” to the victims, and promised to leave them at a “safe” drop-off in San Antonio, the sources said. Both asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the story.
“Three months warranty. Three months of attempts,” promised a WhatsApp message sent to a private group chat of migrants seeking to reach the U.S.
The message was shared with VICE World News by a smuggler who works for the Cartel del Noreste, one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The smuggler said the cartel oversaw the transportation for the 65 migrants found in the trailer-truck.
More than half of the trailer’s occupants appear to have died, including five children, according to News4SanAntonio. Sixteen people were taken to nearby hospitals for medical attention when the trailer was discovered in the late afternoon of June 27, and five have died since. Nearly all the victims who have been identified appear to be from Mexico and Central America.
The tragedy is the worst migrant-smuggling related accident on U.S. soil in recent history. Authorities are trying to piece together what happened and why the driver abandoned the vehicle and its occupants. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said the death of the migrants in the trailer-truck was "horrifying and heartbreaking," and that the incident emphasized the need to go after the smuggling networks that were moving the victims.
The Cartel del Noreste’s fee started at $3,000 for Mexican citizens already in the northern Mexico city of Camargo, across the border from the city of Rio Bravo, Texas, the smuggler said. The price rose to $8,500 for migrants seeking transportation from Guatemala and Honduras. The migrants paid in installments, with the final payment due at the drop-off point in San Antonio.
“We do a good job,” the smuggler said, defending his organization’s operations. “We leave them with their families.”
A migrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, who said he was smuggled into the U.S by the Cartel del Noreste earlier this month, confirmed the broad outlines of the smuggler’s account to VICE World News.
He paid $3,000 in two installments to be smuggled from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to San Antonio, he said. He was snuck into the U.S. in a private car and dropped off at a “safe house” in Laredo, Texas. There, he waited for more than a week as more migrants arrived. Once 30 migrants had arrived, the smugglers stuffed them into a tank attached to a truck.
“There were around 30 people— mostly men. It felt really crowded and hot inside. We were lucky,” said the migrant, who wasn’t sure what kind of tank it was.
The smugglers dropped the migrants off in San Antonio, where relatives picked him up, the migrant said. He didn’t want to share details about the drop-off site for fear of being identified.
Monday’s tragedy unfolded after a city worker heard a cry for help shortly before 6 p.m., Police Chief William McManus said during a press conference. The patients who were transported to a hospital were suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion, Fire Chief Charles Hood said at the same conference. “It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible working AC unit on that rig.”
The owners of a South Texas trucking company said that the trailer-truck transporting the migrants was “cloned” to look like theirs, the San Antonio Express-News reported Tuesday.
U.S. federal authorities arrested three men in relation to the finding of the trailer. Only two have been identified—Mexican citizens Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez.
The San Antonio Police Department started surveillance at the house where the suspects were found, after tracing the trailer-truck’s state registration, according to court documents obtained by VICE World News. Inside the residence, authorities found at least three weapons including a shotgun and a .380 pistol.
Both men appeared in court on Tuesday afternoon on weapons charges. It is still not clear if and how they’re connected to the deadly incident.
San Antonio is 155 miles from the Mexico border, and a major transit route for Mexicans and Central Americans being smuggled into the U.S.
President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the death of more than 50 migrants was caused by human traffickers and that the incident underscores the need to fight against the “criminal industry” of smugglers.
Immigration authorities in the U.S have reported more than 1.2 million encounters at the U.S-Mexico border so far this year, a number that is being inflated by people making repeated attempts to cross the line.
In May alone, 239,000 migrant encounters took place at the US-Mexico border, setting a new record high for illegal crossings, according to CBP figures. The previous record was set in March 2020, when 220,000 were registered. Under current immigration policies, it is not uncommon for an individual to be encountered multiple times in a single month.