New, grisly details are emerging about a human-trafficking operation in San Antonio, Texas, that has already resulted in the deaths of 10 migrants.
According to police documents obtained by the Associated Press, one of the surviving migrants detailed the horrific journey that had brought him to the tractor-trailer.
The man, identified only by the initials J.M.M-J., said he had traveled from Aguascalientes, Mexico, to Nueva Laredo, where smugglers promised they could take him to San Antonio. The total cost for the trip would be more than $6,000.
J.M.M-J. said he was transported across the Rio Grande in a raft, and then led into a series of trailers. By the time he’d reached the trailer where he was eventually found, he and the other travelers had begun to pass out from hunger and asphyxiation.
“People began hitting the trailer walls and making noise to get the driver’s attention,” he told police. “The driver never stopped. People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation, and they started taking turns breathing from the hole.”
On Sunday morning, San Antonio police discovered the tractor-trailer, which was filled with 39 people—including children. By the time they opened the trailer, parked outside of a Walmart, eight of the immigrants had already died of heat exposure and asphyxiation.
According to court documents, the immigrants were stuffed like cargo into the trailer, even as the driver, James M. Bradley Jr., was aware that “the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the four vent holes were probably clogged up.”
Most of the surviving immigrants were brought to the hospital after they were found on Sunday morning. Since then, two more victims have died.
At a press conference on Sunday, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said two of the immigrants found in the truck were “school-age children,” while the rest were in their 20s and 30s.
In a statement, a federal prosecutor described the scene as “horrific” and the traffickers as “ruthless.”
“The South Texas heat is punishing this time of year,” Richard L. Durbin, Jr., said in a statement on Sunday. “These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters. Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus degree heat.”
Federal authorities charged Bradley, the driver, with knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally, a crime that could result in an unlimited prison sentence or the death penalty if he is found guilty. When Bradley arrived in the Walmart parking lot and heard shaking and banging, he did eventually open the truck, but declined to call 911.
He did not own the tractor-trailor, he told authorities.
An expert on border enforcement and migrant deaths called the trucks “mobile ovens.”
“Those things are made out of steel and metal,” the expert, Néstor P. Rodríguez, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, said on Sunday. “Yesterday in Austin, it was like 96 degrees at 9:30 in the evening. Even if the cooling system is on in the tractor-trailer, it’s just too hot.”
This isn’t the only human-trafficking transportation incident that has resulted in a high death toll. In 2003, 19 people died after being crammed into a similar tractor-trailer, also in Texas. One of the victims, a seven year old boy, reportedly died in his father’s arms.
A study that came out earlier this year concluded there were more than 300,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas. The most at-risk industries, according to the study, included migrant farm work, construction, kitchen workers in restaurants, and landscaping services.