At least 53 migrants killed in tractor-trailer crash in southern Mexico

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / View of the bodies of migrants who died in an accident lying on the pavement in Tuxtla Gutierrez, state of Chiapas, Mexico, on December 9, 2021. - At least 49 migrants died Thursday after a trailer in which they were traveling clandestinely crashed into a retaining wall and overturned on a highway in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, state prosecutors said. (Photo by SERGIO HERNANDEZ / AFP) (Photo by SERGIO HERNANDEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Bodies of migrants who died in a tractor-trailer accident lying on the pavement in Tuxtla Gutierrez, state of Chiapas, Mexico, on Thursday. (Sergio Hernandez / AFP/Getty Images)

At least 53 people were killed after a tractor-trailer overturned in southern Mexico on Thursday, one of the worst tragedies in recent memory to befall migrants trying to reach the United States.

Authorities said 107 migrants were packed into the back of truck as it sped along a highway near the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez before the vehicle hit a curve and flipped into the concrete base of a pedestrian bridge.

Along with the dead, 54 people were injured, said Ezequiel Gómez García, a spokesman for the Chiapas state prosecutor's office. He said officials had not located the driver, who has not been reported among the dead and who may have fled the scene of the accident.

Videos of the aftermath showed dozens of bodies strewn across the pavement and dazed survivors receiving medical treatment. In one video, a woman with a bandaged head sat in the middle of the road holding a boy who looked to be about 6 years old.

The accident occurred about 125 miles north of the border with Guatemala, a popular crossing for migrants, many of whom arrive in the care of smugglers who charge thousands of dollars to ferry them north.

Authorities said most of the dead were from Central America, though at least one of the injured was from Ecuador.

Since 2014, when Mexico began dramatically expanding its immigration enforcement efforts at the behest of President Obama, more and more migrants have been turning to smugglers and packing migrants into trailers with little ventilation has become a common — and occasionally deadly — practice.

In 2019, another trailer packed with migrants crashed in Chiapas, killing 23 Guatemalans and injuring 33 more.

Similar deaths have occurred on the northern border.

Last March, more than a dozen migrants were killed in Imperial County when an SUV packed with 25 people collided with a tractor-trailer. The SUV had more than three times the number of people it was supposed to hold when it crossed the U.S.-Mexico border through a breach in the boundary fence.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tweeted his condolences on Thursday.

"I deeply regret the tragedy caused by the overturning of a trailer in Chiapas carrying Central American migrants," López Obrador said. "It is very painful. I hug the families of the victims."

But immigrant advocates were quick to criticize him, suggesting his policies had forced the migrants into danger.

Although López Obrador repeatedly advocated for migrant rights as a presidential candidate and has called for a massive aid program in Central America that would stamp out the root causes of migration, he has also cracked down on migrants under pressure from President Trump and more recently President Biden.

Today, thousands of soldiers and National Guard troops are deployed to Mexico's southern border to man checkpoints and break up so-called "caravans" of migrants marching together in large numbers for protection.

"Brutal. Inhumane. And entirely avoidable," tweeted Falko Ernst, a Mexico-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, which promotes nonviolent solutions to conflicts, in response to Thursday's crash.

Last week, Mexico announced that it would resume receiving migrants under a Trump-era policy known as "Remain in Mexico," which Biden had tried to end but was forced by a court to revive.

The program, which requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are being processed, has been linked to widespread reports of violence against migrants.

One migrant advocacy group, Human Rights First, documented more than 1,500 cases of kidnappings and other violations against migrants who were sent to Mexico as part of the program.

Violence against migrants in Mexico long predates that program.

In 2010, members of the Zetas cartel stopped two tractor-trailers packed with migrants near the U.S. border and shot and killed 72 of them.

The next year, there was an even worse massacre in the same region, when several buses were stopped and nearly 200 migrants were ordered off, killed and buried in mass graves.

Cecilia Sánchez in The Times' Mexico City bureau and special correspondent Juan de Dios in Tapachula, Mexico, contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.