10 die in im­mi­grant smug­gling at­tempt in swel­ter­ing truck

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

At least 10 peo­ple died af­ter be­ing crammed into the back of a swel­ter­ing trac­tor-trailer found parked out­side a Wal­mart in the mid­sum­mer Texas heat, author­i­ties said Sun­day in what they de­scribed as an im­mi­grant-smug­gling at­tempt gone wrong.

The driver was ar­rested, and nearly 20 oth­ers res­cued from the rig were hos­pi­tal­ized in dire con­di­tion, many with ex­treme de­hy­dra­tion and heat­stroke, of­fi­cials said.

Author­i­ties were called to the park­ing lot late Satur­day night or early Sun­day and found eight dead in­side the 18-wheeler. Two more vic­tims died at the hos­pi­tal, Thomas Ho­man, act­ing di­rec­tor of U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Based on ini­tial in­ter­views with sur­vivors, Ho­man said there may have been more than 100 peo­ple in the truck at one point. Thir­tyeight were found in­side, and the rest were be­lieved to have fled or been picked up, author­i­ties said.

Ho­man said some of the sur­vivors told author­i­ties they were from Mex­ico.

It was just the lat­est smug­glingby-truck op­er­a­tion to end in tragedy. In one of the worst cases on record in the U.S., 19 im­mi­grants locked in­side a sti­fling rig died in Vic­to­ria, Texas, in 2003.

“We’re look­ing at a hu­mantraf­fick­ing crime,’’ Po­lice Chief Wil­liam McManus said, adding that many of those in­side the 18-wheeler ap­peared to be in their 20s and 30s and that there were also ap­par­ently two schoolage chil­dren.

He called it “a hor­rific tragedy.’’ Author­i­ties did not say whether the rig was locked when they ar­rived, whether it was used to smug­gle the oc­cu­pants across the bor­der into the U.S., or where it might have been headed. San An­to­nio is about a 150-mile (240-kilo­me­tre) drive from the Mex­i­can bor­der.

There was no im­me­di­ate word on any charges brought against the driver, whose name was not re­leased. The U.S. Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment stepped in to take the lead in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The vic­tims “were very hot to the touch. So these peo­ple were in this trailer with­out any signs of any type of wa­ter,’’ San An­to­nio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.

The tem­per­a­ture in San An­to­nio reached 101 de­grees (38 Cel­sius) on Satur­day and didn’t dip be­low 90 (32 C) un­til af­ter 10 p.m. The trailer didn’t have a work­ing air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem, Hood said.

The tragedy came to light af­ter a per­son from the truck ap­proached a Wal­mart em­ployee in the park­ing lot and asked for wa­ter late Satur­day night or early Sun­day morn­ing, McManus said.

The em­ployee gave the per­son wa­ter and then called po­lice, who found the dead and the des­per­ate in­side the rig. Some of those in the truck ran into the woods, lead­ing to a search, McManus said.

Hours later, af­ter day­break, a he­li­copter hov­ered over the area, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors were still gath­er­ing ev­i­dence from the trac­tor­trailer, which had an Iowa li­cense plate and was reg­is­tered to Pyle Trans­porta­tion Inc. of Schaller, Iowa. A com­pany of­fi­cial did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a phone mes­sage seek­ing com­ment.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors checked store sur­veil­lance video, which showed ve­hi­cles ar­riv­ing and pick­ing up peo­ple from the truck, author­i­ties said.

“By any stan­dard, the hor­rific crime un­cov­ered last night ranks as a stark re­minder of why hu­man smug­gling net­works must be pur­sued, caught and pun­ished,’’ Ho­man said in a state­ment.

In the May 2003 case, the im­mi­grants were be­ing taken from South Texas to Hous­ton. Pros­e­cu­tors said the driver heard them beg­ging and scream­ing for their lives but re­fused to free them.

The driver was sen­tenced to nearly 34 years in prison.

The Bor­der Pa­trol has re­ported at least four truck seizures this month in and around Laredo, Texas. On July 7, agents found 72 peo­ple crammed into a truck with no means of es­cape, the agency said. They were from Mex­ico, Ecuador, Gu­atemala and El Sal­vador.

Author­i­ties in Mex­ico have also made a num­ber of such dis­cov­er­ies over the years.

AP PHOTO

San An­to­nio po­lice of­fi­cers in­ves­ti­gate the scene where eight peo­ple were found dead in a trac­tor-trailer loaded with at least 30 oth­ers out­side a Wal­mart store in sti­fling sum­mer heat in what po­lice are call­ing a hor­rific hu­man traf­fick­ing case, Sun­day, in San An­to­nio, Texas.

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