By Jason Buch and Ted Hesson
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) – The suspected driver of a truck packed with dozens of migrants who died in blazing heat during a Texas smuggling attempt was allegedly under the influence of methamphetamine when police encountered him, a U.S. lawmaker told Reuters, citing information from law enforcement.
San Antonio police officers found Homero Zamorano Jr, a Texas native, hiding in brush near the abandoned tractor-trailer on Monday, according to documents filed in federal court on Thursday. Fifty-three migrants lost their lives, making it the deadliest such trafficking incident on record in the United States.
U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district includes the eastern part of San Antonio, told Reuters on Thursday that Zamorano was found to have had methamphetamine, a powerful synthetic drug, in his system.
Cuellar said he was briefed on the matter by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) but did not know how authorities made that determination.
A CBP official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, separately told Reuters that Zamorano had methamphetamine in his system.
Reuters was not immediately able to independently confirm the accounts of the alleged drug use.
Zamorano, 45, was due to appear in a federal court in San Antonio at 1:30 p.m. (1930 GMT). If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison or possibly the death penalty, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Officials described finding the trailer’s rear door ajar with bodies stacked inside that were hot to the touch. In nearby brush, officers discovered other victims, some deceased. They found Zamorano hiding near the victims and escorted him to a local hospital for medical evaluation, prosecutors said. Mexican officials said he had tried to pass himself off as one of the survivors.
It was not immediately clear what hospital had evaluated Zamorano or who would be representing him in court. Reuters was unable to immediately reach Zamorano.
The truck had been carrying migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and was found in a desolate, industrial area near a highway on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, about 160 miles (260 km) north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Temperatures in the area that day had soared as high as 103 Fahrenheit (39.4 Celsius), and authorities called to the scene found no water supplies or signs of working air-conditioning inside the cargo trailer.
Mexicans accounted for about half of those who perished. Eleven people – including minors – remain hospitalized. In addition to 27 Mexicans, the victims included 14 Hondurans, seven Guatemalans and two Salvadorans, Mexico’s government said.
Among the dead were two teenage boys aged 13 and 14 from a K’iche’-speaking town in southwestern Guatemala, the Guatemalan government said. A community leader identified them as Pascual Melvin Guachiac and Juan Wilmer Tulul.
The two were cousins who left home two weeks ago to escape poverty, Guachiac’s mother was quoted as saying by Guatemalan media. The boys had told the family on Monday they were headed to San Antonio, local media reported.
The nationalities of another 17 of the migrants in the truck remained unclear, prosecutors said. Most of the victims were male, with 13 females among the dead, the Bexar County medical examiner’s office said.
Officials believe the migrants boarded the truck on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico.
Surveillance photographs captured the truck passing through a border checkpoint at Laredo, Texas, at 2:50 p.m. CT (1950 GMT) on Monday, before the migrant passengers are believed to have boarded.
The tractor-trailer rolled through a CBP checkpoint further inside the United States in Encinal, 40 miles (65 km) north of Laredo, with its human cargo apparently going undetected before passing a CBP surveillance camera in Cotulla, 30 miles farther north, according to information provided by Mexican officials.
Cuellar, the Texas lawmaker, said the migrants had likely crossed the border and gone to a “stash house” before being picked up by the trailer and passing the Encinal checkpoint.
They likely then went into San Antonio and experienced mechanical issues that left them in the back of the truck without air conditioning or ventilation, Cuellar said.
Prosecutors also accused Christian Martinez, 28, of conspiring with Zamorano and charged him with a human trafficking offense. He made an initial appearance in a court in the Eastern District of Texas on Wednesday.
Two other men suspected of involvement in the incident, both of them Mexican nationals, were charged on Tuesday in U.S. federal court with possessing firearms while residing in the country illegally. A preliminary hearing for the pair is set for Friday.
(Reporting by Jason Buch in San Antonio, Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Aurora Ellis)
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