The alleged driver of a tractor-trailer linked to the deaths of more than 50 migrants in Texas allegedly crossed through a Border Patrol checkpoint just hours before the gruesome discovery of several dozens of bodies packed into a sweltering hot big rig on the outskirts of San Antonio, court documents have revealed.
A photo shows the accused human smuggler, Homero Zamorano Jr., behind the wheel of the tractor-trailer smiling for security cameras as he crossed the checkpoint from Mexico into the U.S.
Zamorano Jr. is one of the so far four men now charged in connection to what’s considered the deadliest human smuggling incident in recent U.S. history, as the human death toll climbed to 53 on Wednesday.
The 45-year-old driver, who resides in Pasadena, Texas, allegedly attempted to abscond from authorities by hiding in the brush and pretending to be one of the migrants he victimized, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
San Antonio police officers responded Monday evening to 911 calls from concerned citizens to find the tractor-trailer stranded in an industrial area with a total of 64 suspected illegal immigrants inside. Homeland Security Investigations said at least 48 of those migrants were declared deceased at the scene.
By Wednesday, another five individuals had died at area hospitals.
Zamorano, who reportedly has a lengthy criminal record and was taken into custody while high on meth, has been charged with one count of alien smuggling resulting in death.
If convicted, he faces up to life in prison or possibly the death penalty, prosecutors said.
The criminal complaint says the tractor-trailer packed with migrants had passed through the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint just three hours before it was found on the side of the road.
At a press conference Wednesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador released a photo showing Zamorano Jr. smiling as he drove the tractor-trailer through the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol inspection point in Encinal, Texas, at approximately 2:50 p.m. local time Monday.
Prosecutors said Laredo Sector Border Patrol provided Homeland Security Investigations agents surveillance footage of the tractor-trailer crossing through an immigration checkpoint.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that state troopers would set up additional truck checkpoints on highways. In April, Abbott gridlocked the 1,200-mile Texas border for a week by requiring every truck entering the state to undergo additional inspections as part of his ongoing fight with the Biden administration over immigration policy.
"President Biden needs to focus on addressing the humanitarian crisis his reckless leadership has created at the border, instead of attacking the jobs of hardworking Texans and oil production in the Permian Basin," Abbott said in a statement Wednesday. "The Lone Star State will not sit idly by as the federal government chooses to ignore the historic number of illegal crossings, human smuggling, and drug trafficking of deadly fentanyl from Mexico into the United States. Our government has no greater responsibility than to provide public safety to its citizens. Until President Biden decides to uphold immigration laws passed by Congress, the State of Texas will continue utilizing every tool available to secure the border and keep Texans – and Americans – safe."
Also charged by criminal complaint is Christian Martinez, 28, who was arrested on Tuesday in Palestine.
He is charged with one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death. According to court documents, a search warrant was executed on a cell phone belonging to Zamorano.
Through investigation, it was discovered that communications occurred between Zamorano and Martinez concerning the smuggling event, prosecutors said. He, too, faces up to life in prison or could face the death penalty if convicted. Martinez had an initial appearance Wednesday in Tyler and will be transported to San Antonio for further proceedings, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Two Mexican nationals who allegedly admitted to overstaying their B-2 visas and had been living in the U.S. illegally were also charged.
Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, both citizens of Mexico, were arrested and had initial appearances on Monday. According to court documents, the registration for the tractor-trailer used in the attempted alien smuggling event came back to a residence in San Antonio.
San Antonio officers set up surveillance on the residence and observed two males leaving in separate trucks. After traffic stops on both trucks, the drivers were identified as D’Luna-Mendez and D’Luna-Bilbao. D’Luna-Bilboa was in possession of a handgun that was found in the center console.
A search warrant was executed at the residence where additional firearms were located. Both individuals were determined to be in the U.S. illegally and were charged by criminal complaint with one count of possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the U.S. in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 922(g)(5). If convicted, both defendants face up to 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.
Of those 48 migrants declared dead at the scene, authorities confirmed 22 were Mexican nationals, seven were Guatemalan nationals, two were Honduran nationals and 17 others are of unknown origin but suspected to be undocumented non-citizens (UNCs). Homeland Security Investigations confirmed the undocumented status of deceased individuals by utilizing a mobile fingerprint device.
Officials are working with foreign consulate offices for proper notifications to family members of the deceased, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.