The death toll after an abandoned tractor-trailer was found in San Antonio continued to grow Wednesday, reaching 53 people in what officials are calling likely the deadliest smuggling incident in U.S. history.
Of the 53 people who died, 40 were identified as male and 13 as female, according to the Bexar County Public Information Office. Most of them have been identified as migrants. By Wednesday morning, officials said they potentially identified 37 of the victims and were working to confirm their identities through methods like fingerprint analysis.
The tragedy occurred at a time when huge numbers of migrants have been coming to the U.S., many of them taking perilous risks to cross swift rivers and canals and scorching desert landscapes. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.
What do we know about the victims?
Bodies of passengers who authorities said suffered from heat stroke and heat exhaustion were carried out of the truck Monday and spread out in body bags on the ground.
The victims who have been identified were from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rubén Minutti Zanatta, Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio, said he believes 27 of the victims who died were Mexican nationals, adding that he's received dozens of requests from Mexicans searching for missing relatives who may have been among those found in the truck.
The death count was the highest ever from a smuggling incident in the United States, according to Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
How many people were hospitalized?
Eleven individuals remain hospitalized as of 12 p.m. Wednesday, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
José Luis Guzmán Vásquez, 32, from San Miguel Huautla in the southern state of Oaxaca, was among the survivors, said Aida Ruiz García, director of the Oaxacan Institute for Migrant Attention.
Identifying victims may prove difficult, experts say
Experts told USA TODAY that identifying those who died may be a long, complicated and costly process, not only because multiple countries are involved, but because families of migrants seeking relocation to the United States may be fearful of coming forward.
"It’s pretty much detective work," said Bexar County spokesman Tom Peine.
Part of what makes identifying migrants difficult is that frequently those seeking entry into the United States may not want to be identified because they don’t want to be sent back to their original country, so they may carry no documents at all, or carry false documents indicating that they are, for example, from Mexico rather than Guatemala to end up closer to the border, said Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist and professor at Baylor University in Texas.
IDENTIFYING VICTIMS: 51 migrants are dead in San Antonio. Identifying their remains won't be easy.
Driver of truck, three others arrested
The driver of the truck and three others were arrested, the Department of Justice said. All four are in federal custody.
The Justice Department identified the driver as Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, of Pasadena, Texas. He was arrested Wednesday and has been charged with one count of smuggling resulting in death.
He is scheduled for a first court appearance Thursday in San Antonio.
Christian Martinez, 28, was also charged in connection with the smuggling. Investigators executed a search warrant on Zamorano's phone and said they found that he had communicated with Martinez about the smuggling conspiracy beforehand. Martinez faces a charge of conspiracy to smuggle resulting in death.
Juan Claudio D'Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D'Luna-Bilbao, 48, are both facing a charge of possessing a weapon while in the U.S. illegally, federal charging documents filed in the Western District of Texas show. The two men, who are Mexican citizens, haven't been charged in the suspected smuggling conspiracy, court records show.
The criminal complaints for both men say federal authorities linked the men to the truck by tracing the address on the vehicle's registration. Authorities say both men admitted to possession of illegal firearms not manufactured in the state of Texas and to overstaying their visas, according to the complaints.
The complaints show both men are scheduled to appear in court on Friday.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is leading the investigation into the suspected smuggling operation, authorities said.
"This incident underscores the need to go after the multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths," President Joe Biden said in a statement.
'ALL ABOUT THE MONEY': 51 dead in San Antonio reveals harsh world of human smuggling
San Antonio deaths shed light on conditions of people crossing border
Monday’s discovery in San Antonio was the deadliest illustration yet of the conditions faced by migrants hoping to reach the United States.
Experts said the disaster points to recklessness by smugglers to transport migrants, even in unsafe conditions, to reap the most profit.
The advent of Mexican organized-crime rings into human smuggling operations in recent years has turned border-crossing into a major enterprise, Sheriff Urbino "Benny" Martinez in Brooks County, Texas, and others said. At the same time, stricter border enforcement is forcing smugglers to take riskier pathways into the United States while using approaches – like jam-packed, unventilated tractor-trailers – that put more people at risk, without concern for their comfort or safety.
“Any place they can fit a body, they’re going to do it,” said Martinez, who works about two hours from the U.S.-Mexico border. “They’ll bring them in tractor-trailers, U-Haul trucks, pickup beds, anything that will take a body in there. It’s all about the money.”
Monday's suspected smuggling incident is one of many that ended with deaths. Four years ago, ten died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck parked at a San Antonio Walmart. In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of the city.
Temperatures in San Antonio on Monday approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and those taken to the hospital were hot to the touch and dehydrated, authorities said.
Contributing: Tami Abdollah, Marc Ramirez, Claire Thornton, and Celina Tebor, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: San Antonio death toll hits 53 after migrants found in tractor-trailer