Two men were indicted on Wednesday in the case of the 53 migrants who died inside a tractor-trailer last month while being smuggled through Texas.
A federal grand jury in San Antonio charged Homero Zamorano Jr. and Christian Martínez, both residents of Pasadena, Texas, on charges of transporting and conspiring to transport migrants illegally resulting in death, according to the indictment.
Zamorano Jr. and Martínez remain in federal custody without bond awaiting trial and could face life sentences and even death penalties, if authorized by prosecutors.
The tragedy was the worst incident related to migrant smuggling 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.
The 53 migrants died of heat stroke and dehydration inside the trailer-truck, which was abandoned on the side of a highway in San Antonio on June 27.
In addition to the arrests of Zamorano Jr. and Martinez, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, both citizens of Mexico, were arrested and had initial court appearances on June 27.
The registration for the tractor-trailer used to transport the migrants led to a house in San Antonio, according to court documents. Local police officers set up surveillance and observed two men leaving the property in separate trucks. After traffic stops on both trucks, the drivers were identified as D’Luna-Mendez and D’Luna-Bilbao, and the latter had a gun on him. More weapons were found at the residence, and both men were charged for illegal weapons possession.
Authorities believe the four men arrested are connected to a Mexican drug cartel running migrant smuggling operations from south of the U.S-Mexico border.
Many of the 53 migrants who died paid upwards of $3,000 to the Cartel del Noreste 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 point 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 Cartel del Noreste’s fee started at $3,000 for Mexican citizens already in the northern Mexican 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.