The alleged driver of a truck packed with migrants who died in the sweltering Texas heat this week could face the death penalty for his role in one of the deadliest human-trafficking incidents in U.S. history.
On Wednesday, as the total number of fatalities in the case climbed to 53, federal prosecutors charged 45-year-old Homero Zamorano Jr. with immigrant smuggling resulting in death.
Federal prosecutors also charged 28-year-old Christian Martinez with conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants resulting in death. He too could face the death penalty if convicted. Cellphone records allegedly show that he and Zamorano communicated about the smuggling attempt.
The big rig was discovered Monday evening near a stretch of railroad tracks in an industrial zone of San Antonio after a worker at a paving company heard a cry for help.
Another worker at the company, Roberto Quintero, ran out to find a girl about 10 or 11 years old who had managed to get out of the truck and was sitting on the ground, pounding the pavement and screaming.
“I didn’t get her name or think to ask where she came from,” said Quintero, 57. “She just kept hanging on my arms, screaming, ‘Help me, help me.' ”
When Quintero looked inside the truck, he saw bodies “piled at edge of door, like they were trying to get out," he said. "Some of them were already turning blue and purple, their lips. There were a couple of people were still conscious, just gasping for air."
When first responders arrived, they "discovered multiple individuals, some still inside the tractor-trailer, some on the ground and in nearby brush, many of them deceased and some of them incapacitated," according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office. It said 48 people were declared dead at the scene while an additional five would later perish in hospitals.
Authorities discovered Zamorano nearby, "hiding in the brush," according to the statement.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the suspect, a U.S. citizen, at first pretended to be a migrant and appeared to be under the influence of narcotics. He was taken to a hospital.
Prosecutors said surveillance video showed Zamorano driving the tractor-trailer through an immigration checkpoint near the Texas border city of Laredo earlier Monday. Zamorano "matched the individual from the surveillance footage and was wearing the same clothing," the statement said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that the tractor-trailer was not inspected at the checkpoint “because the Border Patrol does not have the resources to be able to inspect all of the trucks.” He announced that the state will add new checkpoints near the border aimed at finding those who are smuggling people.
First responders said there was no sign of water or working air-conditioning in the truck, even as temperatures in San Antonio on Monday hovered around 100 degrees. Law enforcement officials have not clarified why the truck was stopped in San Antonio, although some have speculated that it may have had mechanical problems.
After crossing the border on foot, migrants are frequently cajoled by smugglers into car trunks or tractor-trailers to avoid detection at the ubiquitous Border Patrol checkpoints in southern Texas.
According to court records and an interview with his sister, Zamorano has a lengthy criminal history.
Texas Department of Corrections records show he was last sent to prison 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 residential burglary beginning in 2000.
His sister, Tomasita Medina, said Zamorano is the eldest of three siblings raised in the border city of Brownsville, about 280 miles southeast of San Antonio.
At about age 14, Zamorano — whom relatives call “Homer” — got involved with drugs and then dropped out of school around the sixth grade, she said.
“That’s the reason that we really never see him," she said. "He’s always had an issue, a problem with drugs. He’s always in and out of our lives because of that.”
She said Zamorano moved often: from the border to east Texas, south Florida and ultimately Houston, after Medina and the rest of the family settled there in 1998. Zamorano worked on and off as a handyman, stealing to fund his drug use and spending time behind bars, Medina said.
The last time Medina saw her brother was a few months ago, when he visited for a week to help their younger brother with yardwork. He was his regular self, “goofy” and “always making jokes,” she said.
Medina said she was shocked when she saw news reports Wednesday that her brother had been arrested in connection with the tractor-trailer deaths. All she could think was that he became involved because of his drug habit.
“Maybe they offered him drugs or money for drugs," she said. "Otherwise, I don’t think he would have done it."
Medina said the arrest was particularly painful because the family has roots in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville.
“I’m devastated on both sides," she said. "It’s hard because we do come from a family of immigrants. My dad was born in Mexico, he was raised in Mexico."
In total, four people have been charged in connection with the deaths. Two Mexican nationals in the U.S. illegally — 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 a San Antonio address and then surveilled the house, according to criminal complaints filed against them Tuesday.
The tragedy is not the first time smugglers have packed a trailer with migrants with deadly consequences.
In 2003, 19 migrants died after they were abandoned in a trailer at a truck stop south of San Antonio. The driver, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, was convicted and is serving a sentence of nearly 34 years in prison.
Quintero, the paving company employee, was back at work Thursday. From his office, he can see memorial crosses where the truck was left.
“I’m trying to stay away from it so I can get it out of my head,” he said. “I grew up with immigrants on a farm. It’s hard to see these people, how they struggle to get here only to die.”
Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Antonio, Winton from Los Angeles, Linthicum from Mexico City and Aleaziz from Healdsburg, Calif. Cecilia Sánchez in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.