The bodies of at least 46 people believed to be migrants were found in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio on Monday in what appeared to be one of the deadliest human-smuggling incidents in recent U.S. history.
Early Tuesday, Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter that 50 people had died. Ebrard said 22 Mexican nationals, seven Guatemalan nationals and two Honduran nationals had been identified.
"We are in mourning. Huge tragedy," Ebrard wrote in Spanish.
Officials from the Guatemalan Migration Institute and the nation's consulate in McAllen, Texas, had said Monday that they were awaiting the identities of those in the truck and could not confirm whether any were Guatemalan.
About 5:50 p.m. Monday, a worker heard a cry for help and found a trailer with the doors partially open, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said. The worker opened the doors, found "a number of deceased individuals inside" and called police.
Firefighters found a body outside the trailer and several inside in the area of 9600 Quintana Road, in the southwestern part of the city, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.
First responders described seeing bodies piled on top of one another inside the trailer.
Sixteen survivors — 12 adults and four minors — were taken to hospitals, Hood said.
"The patients that we saw were hot to the touch," he said. "They were suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion. [There were] no signs of water in the vehicle. It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no visible, working AC unit on that rig."
Temperatures in the area were as high as 99 degrees Monday.
Those who survived, mostly young adults, were too weak to get out of the trailer, Hood said.
A spokesperson for University Hospital in San Antonio confirmed the facility was treating two patients in critical condition.
Three people are in custody, McManus said, but authorities "don't know if they are absolutely connected to this or not." The investigation has been turned over to U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, McManus said.
Federal agents responded to a call reporting "an alleged human smuggling event" from San Antonio police, a spokesperson for Homeland Security Investigations told The Times.
Agents arrived at the scene on Quintana Road near Cassin Drive, the spokesperson said, and launched an investigation with the support of the San Antonio Police Department.
Local TV news footage showed San Antonio police blocking a narrow road near railroad tracks. Several ambulances were on scene as authorities surrounded the tractor-trailer.
The tractor-trailer had U.S. license plates, a possible attempt to avoid scrutiny, and is very likely the work of traffickers, Ebrard said.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the deaths "nothing short of a horrific tragedy."
"We know of 46 individuals who are no longer with us who had families, who were likely trying to find a better life, and we have 16 folks who are fighting for their lives in the hospital," Nirenberg said. "Our focus right now is to try to bring aid to them as best we can."
San Antonio City Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia, who represents the area where the tractor-trailer was found, was at the scene late Monday.
"These families, I can't imagine what they're going through, not knowing if their family member was one of the ones who passed away," Garcia said. "All they were doing was trying to come for a better life."
Smuggling migrants in tractor-trailers is a common practice along the Southwest border.
In 2003, 19 people died after they were abandoned in a trailer at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas. The driver, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, was convicted and is serving a sentence of nearly 34 years in prison.
In 2017, 10 people died after they were left in a tractor-trailer outside a Walmart in San Antonio. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Last year, 55 migrants who were being smuggled through Mexico died in a tractor-trailer crash near the Guatemalan border.
The number of migrants relying on smugglers has surged in recent decades amid tougher enforcement by U.S. and Mexican immigration authorities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Migrants now pay as much as $10,000 to smuggling networks that are closely linked to drug traffickers. Rape, kidnapping and extortion along the migrant trail are common.
Harsh border policies, migrant advocates say, have forced those trying to reach the U.S. to take increasingly dangerous risks.
"It's a policy of death," tweeted Adam Isacson, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.
In recent years, U.S. border enforcement has targeted not only economic migrants seeking work but also asylum seekers in search of protection.
Title 42, which former President Trump invoked in 2020 on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19, allows border authorities to immediately expel migrants, even if they say they want to seek asylum in the U.S. Since it was put in place, the U.S. has expelled migrants nearly 2 million times.
The Biden administration sought to lift Title 42 this year, but its efforts were blocked by a judge after 24 states sued. Texas filed its own lawsuit to block the move.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed the deaths of the migrants in San Antonio on President Biden. "They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law," Abbott said in a tweet.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) tweeted that he had spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas about the the deaths, which were "most likely the victims of merciless human smugglers."
Federal agents are working to alert the victims' families, find those responsible and investigate what happened, Castro said.
Mayorkas, meanwhile, tweeted that he was heartbroken by the loss of life.
Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.