Nine peo­ple in back of trailer die in Texas

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - COM­PILED BY DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE STAFF FROM WIRE RE­PORTS

SAN AN­TO­NIO — At least nine peo­ple died af­ter be­ing crammed into a swel­ter­ing trac­tor-trailer found parked out­side a Wal-Mart in the mid­sum­mer Texas heat, vic­tims of what author­i­ties said on Sun­day was a peo­ple-smug­gling at­tempt.

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.

“We’re look­ing at a hu­man-traf­fick­ing crime,” said San An­to­nio Po­lice Chief Wil­liam Mc­Manus, call­ing it “a hor­rific tragedy.”

Author­i­ties were called to the San An­to­nio park­ing lot late Satur­day or early Sun­day and found eight peo­ple dead in­side the truck. A ninth vic­tim died at the hos­pi­tal, said Liz John­son, a spokesman for U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment.

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.

Author­i­ties would not say whether the trailer was locked when they ar­rived, but they said it had no work­ing air con­di­tion­ing.

The eight ini­tial fa­tal­i­ties were be­lieved to have been

caused by heat ex­po­sure and as­phyx­i­a­tion, a spokesman for the Po­lice Depart­ment said. Fed­eral of­fi­cials said in a state­ment that 39 peo­ple were in the trailer. Hood said at a news con­fer­ence that 30 were taken to hos­pi­tals, about 20 of whom were in “ex­tremely se­vere” or crit­i­cal con­di­tion.

Two of those found were “school-age chil­dren,” and the oth­ers were in their 20s and 30s, Mc­Manus said. The two youngest of those in­jured were 15, ac­cord­ing to a spokesman. The bod­ies were taken to the Bexar County med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice to de­ter­mine the cause of death. De­tails about the vic­tims were unavail­able.

Mayor Ron Niren­berg in a state­ment called the episode “tragic,” adding that it “shines a bright light on the plight of im­mi­grants look­ing for a bet­ter life and vic­tims of hu­man traf­fick­ing.”

“These peo­ple were help­less in the hands of their trans­porters,” said Richard Durbin Jr., the U.S. at­tor­ney for the West­ern District of Texas, which in­cludes San An­to­nio. “Imag­ine their suf­fer­ing, trapped in a sti­fling trailer in 100-plus-de­gree heat.”

Shop­pers re­turned to the Wal-Mart store on Sun­day.

“Who couldn’t be an­gry?” Mario Mar­tinez, 50, an air-con­di­tion­ing ser­vice worker from San An­to­nio, said as he pumped re­frig­er­ant into his car.

He said res­i­dents of the cen­tral Texas area were fa­mil­iar with such cases be­cause San An­to­nio is on the In­ter­state 35 cor­ri­dor that smug­glers use to trans­port drugs and peo­ple.

It is the lat­est smug­gling-by-truck op­er­a­tion to end in tragedy. In one of the worst cases on record in the U.S., 19 peo­ple locked in­side a sti­fling rig died in Vic­to­ria, Texas, in 2003.

Based on ini­tial in­ter­views with sur­vivors, more than 100 peo­ple may have been packed into the back of the 18-wheeler at one point in its jour­ney, Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment act­ing Di­rec­tor Thomas Ho­man said. Of­fi­cials said 39 peo­ple were in­side when res­cuers ar­rived, and the rest were be­lieved to have es­caped or hitched rides to their next des­ti­na­tion.

Some of the sur­vivors told author­i­ties they were from Mex­ico, and four ap­peared to be be­tween 10 and 17 years old, Ho­man said. In­ves­ti­ga­tors gave no de­tails on where the rig be­gan its jour­ney or where it was headed.

Ho­man said it was un­likely the truck was used to carry the peo­ple across the bor­der into the United States. He said peo­ple from Latin Amer­ica who rely on smug­gling net­works typ­i­cally cross the bor­der on foot and are then picked up by a driver.

“Even though they have the driver in cus­tody, I can guar­an­tee you there’s go­ing to be many more peo­ple we’re look­ing for to pros­e­cute,” Ho­man said.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors said James Mathew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clear­wa­ter, Fla., was taken

into cus­tody and would be charged to­day. The area U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice wouldn’t say whether Bradley was the driver who was ar­rested. It was not im­me­di­ately known whether Bradley had an at­tor­ney who could speak on his be­half.

The U.S. Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment stepped in to take the lead in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion from San An­to­nio po­lice. Depart­ment Sec­re­tary John Kelly said the in­ci­dent demon­strates the bru­tal­ity of smug­gling or­ga­ni­za­tions that “have no re­gard for hu­man life and seek only prof­its.”

The truck 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.

San An­to­nio is about a 150-mile drive from the Mex­i­can bor­der. The tem­per­a­ture in San An­to­nio reached 101 de­grees on Satur­day and didn’t dip be­low 90 de­grees un­til af­ter 10 p.m.

An ex­pert on bor­der en­force­ment and mi­grant deaths called the trucks “mo­bile ovens.”

“Those things are made out of steel and metal,” the ex­pert, Nestor Ro­driguez, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, said 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.”

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

The em­ployee gave the per­son wa­ter and then called po­lice. Some of those in the truck ran into the woods, Mc­Manus said.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors checked store sur­veil­lance video, which showed ve­hi­cles ar­riv­ing and pick­ing up peo­ple from the truck, author­i­ties said. Wal-Mart re­leased a brief state­ment Sun­day say­ing it was do­ing what it could to help in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

In the May 2003 case, the aliens 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.

“It’s sad that 14 years later peo­ple are still be­ing smug­gled in trac­tor-trail­ers, there still isn’t wa­ter, there still isn’t ven­ti­la­tion,” Ho­man said. “These crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions, they’re all about mak­ing money. They have no re­gard for hu­man life.”

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 Ecuador, El Sal­vador, Gu­atemala and Mex­ico.

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

Last De­cem­ber, they found 110 mi­grants trapped and suf­fo­cat­ing in­side a truck af­ter it crashed while speed­ing in the state of Ver­acruz. Most were from Cen­tral Amer­ica, and 48 were mi­nors. Some were in­jured in the crash.

Last Oc­to­ber, also in Ver­acruz state, four mi­grants suf­fo­cated in a truck car­ry­ing 55 peo­ple.

About 100 peo­ple held a vigil in San An­to­nio on Sun­day night.

Rights ac­tivists and church of­fi­cials held up hand­made signs read­ing “Who here is not an im­mi­grant” and “No hu­man is le­gal” on Sun­day even­ing in the plaza out­side the San Fer­nando cathe­dral in down­town San An­to­nio. One woman wore a T-shirt read­ing in Span­ish, “My name is Je­sus. I don’t have pa­pers.”

Those gath­ered held a mo­ment of si­lence, then gave speeches blam­ing fed­eral and Texas author­i­ties’ em­brace of harsher im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies for con­tribut­ing to the deaths.

Jonathan Ryan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Refugee and Im­mi­grant Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion and Le­gal Ser­vices, said it’s “an un­for­tu­nate ex­am­ple” of what hap­pens when such po­lices are en­acted.

He said: “You can change laws but you can­not stop the move­ment of dis­placed peo­ple.”

A new law ap­proved by the Texas Leg­is­la­ture lets po­lice in­quire about peo­ples’ im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus dur­ing rou­tine in­ter­ac­tions like traf­fic stops. Op­po­nents have sued in fed­eral court to stop it, say­ing it’s a “show your pa­pers” law.

Mayor Ron Niren­berg in a state­ment called the episode “tragic,” adding that it “shines a bright light on the plight of im­mi­grants look­ing for a bet­ter life and vic­tims of hu­man traf­fick­ing.”

AP/ERIC GAY

San An­to­nio po­lice of­fi­cers in­ves­ti­gate the scene where peo­ple were found dead on Sun­day in a trac­tor-trailer out­side a Wal-Mart store in sti­fling sum­mer heat.

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