The alleged driver of a truck full of migrants who died in the sweltering Texas heat this week, he could face the death penalty for his role in one of the deadliest human trafficking incidents in US history.
On Wednesday, as the total number of fatalities in the case rose to 53, federal prosecutors charged 45-year-old Homero Zamorano Jr. of immigrant smuggling resulting in death.
Federal prosecutors have also charged 28-year-old Christian Martinez with conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants to death. He too could face the death penalty if convicted. Cell phone records show that he and Zamorano communicated about the smuggling attempt.
The large rig was discovered Monday night near a stretch of railroad track in an industrial area of San Antonio after a worker heard a cry for help.
When first responders arrived, they discovered “several individuals, some still in the tractor-trailer, some on the ground and near undergrowth, many of them dead and some of them incapacitated,” according to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office. It said 48 people were pronounced dead at the scene, while another five would later die in hospitals.
Authorities discovered Zamorano nearby, “hidden in the undergrowth,” the statement said.
A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the suspect, a US citizen, initially pretended to be a migrant and appeared to be under the influence of narcotics. He has been taken to a hospital.
Prosecutors said surveillance video showed Zamorano driving the tractor-trailer through an immigration checkpoint near the Texas border town of Laredo earlier Monday. Zamorano “matched the person in the surveillance footage and wore the same clothes,” the statement said.
First responders said there was no sign of water or working air conditioning in the truck, even as temperatures in San Antonio hovered around 100 degrees on Monday. Law enforcement officers have not clarified why the truck stopped in San Antonio, although some have speculated that there were mechanical problems.
After crossing the border on foot, migrants are often coaxed by smugglers in car trunks or tractor-trailers to avoid being discovered at the ubiquitous border police checkpoints in southern Texas.
According to court records and an interview with his sister, Zamorano has a long criminal history.
Records from the Texas Department of Corrections show that he was last sent to jail for about 15 months in 2016 and 2017 for jumping bail and failing to appear in court. Before that, he served nearly three years for home burglaries starting in 2000.
His sister, Tomasita Medina, said Zamorano is the eldest of three siblings who grew up in the border town of Brownsville, about 280 miles southeast of San Antonio.
At about age 14, Zamorano — whom relatives refer to as “Homer” — became involved in drugs and then dropped out of school around sixth grade, she said.
“That’s the reason we really never see him,” she said. “He’s always had a problem, a problem with drugs. That’s why he’s always in and out of our lives.”
She said Zamorano moved frequently: from the border to East Texas, South Florida, and finally Houston, after Medina and the rest of the family settled there in 1998. Zamorano occasionally worked as a handyman and stole to fund his drug use and pass the time. behind bars, said Medina.
The last time Medina saw her brother was a few months ago when he was visiting for a week to help their younger brother with the yard work. He was his normal self, “goofy” and “always joking,” she said.
Medina said she was shocked to see news reports Wednesday that her brother had been arrested in connection with the deaths involving trailers. All she could think was that he got involved because of his drug addiction.
“Maybe they offered him drugs or money for drugs,” she said. “I don’t think he would have done it otherwise.”
Medina said the arrest was particularly painful because the family has roots in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville.
“I’m broken on both sides,” she said. “It’s hard because we come from an immigrant family. My father was born in Mexico, he grew up in Mexico.”
A total of four people have been charged in connection with the deaths. Two Mexican citizens residing illegally in the US – Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez – were charged with illegal possession of firearms after police traced the truck’s registration to an address in San Antonio and then checked the house. Reports were filed against them on Tuesday.
The tragedy isn’t the first time smugglers have packed a trailer full of migrants with deadly consequences.
In 2003, 19 migrants died after being left in a trailer at a truck stop south of San Antonio. The driver, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, has been convicted and is serving a nearly 34-year prison term.
Hennessy-Fiske of San Antonio, Winton of Los Angeles, Linthicum of Mexico City and Aleaziz of Healdsburg, California. Cecilia Sánchez of The Times’ Mexico City office contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times†