The death toll includes migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, according to a federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The medical examiner’s office may have identified 34 of the 51 victims, Clay-Flores said. The county coroner has also asked for help from the medical examiners in neighboring provinces due to the high number of victims.
“This is the worst human trafficking in the United States. It sheds light on how dangerous human smuggling is,” said Craig Larrabee, Special Agent on duty for Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio.
“In the past, smuggling organizations were mom and dad. Now they are organized and connected to the cartels. So you have a criminal organization that has no regard for the safety of the migrants. They are treated as commodities instead of people.” he told DailyExpertNews in a telephone interview.
Three people detained outside the trailer site are in police custody, although their connection to the situation is unclear, Police Chief Bill McManus said at a news conference Monday night.
Authorities were alerted to the scene just before 6 p.m., when a worker in a nearby building heard a cry for help, McManus said. The worker found a trailer with partially opened doors and saw dead people inside, he said.
Forty-eight people died on the spot and two died in hospitals, the federal law enforcement official told DailyExpertNews on Tuesday, noting that the toll is tentative.
Sixteen people — 12 adults and four children — were taken to medical facilities alive and conscious, San Antonio fire chief Charles Hood said at Monday night’s news conference.
Patients were warm to the touch and suffered from heat stroke and exhaustion, Hood said. The refrigerator-trailer had no visible working air conditioning and there was no sign of water inside, he said. It’s not clear how long the people in the truck had been dead, the official said.
“None of these people were able to free themselves from the truck,” Hood said. “So they were still there, waiting for help, when we arrived…meaning they were just too weak — debilitated condition — to really get out and help themselves.”
Ashley C. Hoff, US Attorney for the Western District of Texas, said the migrants were “the apparent victims of people smugglers who are indifferent to the well-being of human lives.”
She added: “We will continue to work with the Homeland Security Investigations and local responders to identify and bring to justice those responsible for this tragedy.”
At least 22 Mexicans and two Hondurans were in the truck, the federal law enforcement official said. The dead included seven Guatemalans and another Guatemalan was in critical condition in a hospital, the country’s secretary of state told DailyExpertNews.
President Joe Biden described the discovery as “horrifying and heartbreaking,” saying the dead underscored the need to go after criminal human trafficking.
The truck passed through a checkpoint north of Laredo, Texas, on Monday, said U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, who represents a district including Laredo and San Antonio, which are about 240 miles apart. Cuellar spoke with Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday and has been in contact with U.S. Border Patrol, he told DailyExpertNews.
Firefighters saw ‘piles of corpses’
The 60 firefighters who were on the scene are being subjected to a critical debriefing of the incident, Hood said.
“We’re not supposed to open a truck and see piles of corpses there. None of us come to work to think of that,” the fire chief said.
One of the bodies was outside the trailer when firefighters arrived, Hood said.
Business owners in the area where the trailer was found told DailyExpertNews they were in shock.
It was people, it was terrible,” said Israel Martinez, 68, co-owner of USA Auto Parts. “We (migrants) come to this country for a better life and reminded many of us yesterday that unfortunately some of us , but many others don’t.”
US officials are working to better handle the flow of migrants to the US-Mexico border, Mayorkas told DailyExpertNews earlier this month. Their operation builds on previous initiatives to track down smugglers on whom migrants often depend as they make their way to the border. Homeland Security also announced an effort last spring to work with federal partners to crack down on criminal smuggling organizations.
Migrants have faced other tragedies and challenges in recent years from enduring dangerous heat and terrain while trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
Carolyn Sung, Michelle Watson, Karol Suarez, Kevin Liptak, Jason Hanna, Sharif Paget, Jen Deaton, Amanda Jackson and Steve Almasy of DailyExpertNews contributed to this report.