4 Federally Charged in San Antonio Migrant Smuggling Case as Death Toll Rises to 53

San Antonio migrant deaths
Mourners gathered at San Antonio site of abandoned semi truck as the death toll in the human smuggling case rose to 53.Getty

Four people have been arrested and charged after 53 migrants died in San Antonio, federal authorities said. The migrants were found allegedly abandoned in a sweltering Texas semi truck on Monday after a worker heard cries for help.

Four men have been arrested and charged after 53 migrants perished in San Antonio, the deadliest human smuggling incident in U.S. history, federal officials said.

The migrants were found allegedly abandoned in a sweltering Texas semi truck on Monday after a worker heard cries for help. The death toll, initially placed at 46, rose to 53 Wednesday after more died at local hospitals, authorities said.

Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, a U.S. citizen living in Texas, was arrested Wednesday and criminally charged with human smuggling resulting in death, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Zamorano is the alleged driver of the tractor-trailer truck and was taken into custody after he was found hiding in brush after trying to flee, the Justice Department said.

He originally tried to pass himself off as one of the survivors, Mexican officials said Wednesday.

Christian Martinez, 28, who was arrested on Tuesday in Palestine, Texas, was charged with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented migrants resulting in death, the DOJ said.

If convicted, both face possible sentences of death or life in prison, federal authorities said.

Two Mexican citizens, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, were arrested Monday and each charged with one count of possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the U.S., federal authorities said.

If convicted, the two face possible sentences of 10 years in prison.

At the hellish scene on Monday, law enforcement officers found 64 migrants suspected of entering the United States without authorization, federal officials said. Many were inside the trailer, and others were found in the brush, dead or incapacitated.

Craig Larrabee, an agent with Homeland Security Investigations, called the incident "horrific" and "eye-opening" in an interview with CBS News

Larrabee said massive smuggling operations are now conducted in connection with drug cartels operating in the border areas. "You have organizations that simply do not care about the safety of the individuals they're transporting," he said. "It's a commodity."

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told CNN the scene was "beyond tragic," and officers initially hoped they would rescue those trapped inside. Instead, they found "the floor of the trailer, it was completely covered in bodies. Completely covered in bodies," he said.

"This was a crime against humanity. This was nothing but pure evil, that someone could allow this to happen, to anyone, let alone that many people," the chief said. 

The truck was not air conditioned and no water was found at the scene, where temperatures were above 100 degrees, authorities said.

Federal prosecutors have requested that D’Luna-Mendez and D’Luna-Bilbao be held without bond. Their detention hearings are scheduled for Friday.

All four men are in federal custody, authorities said. A court hearing has not been scheduled for Martinez and Zamorano was scheduled for a U.S. Magistrate hearing in San Antonio Thursday afternoon.

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