SAN ANTONIO — The death toll continues to climb after dozens of migrants died from heat-related causes after being found in the back of a tractor-trailer Monday in southwest San Antonio.
On Tuesday, Bexar County and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the death toll had risen to 51. Thirty-nine of the victims were men and 12 of them women, officials said.
More than a dozen people — their bodies hot to the touch — were taken to hospitals, including four children.
Forty-six people were found dead at the scene, authorities said. Five more later died after being taken to hospitals, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the county’s top elected official. Most of the dead were males, he said.
Among the dead are 22 Mexican nationals, seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans, said Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood said all the deaths stemmed from heat-related causes, including heat stroke and exhaustion. All were reportedly inside the back of the tractor-trailer that had no visible working A/C unit and no water, he said.
The discovery was made shortly before 6 p.m. by a nearby worker who heard cries for help coming from the truck, which was parked in the area of Quintana Road and Cassin Drive, said San Antonio Police Chief William McMannus.
Officers arrived to find a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially opened gate to the trailer, he said.
“We’re not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there," Chief Hood said.
Chief McManus said three people were taken into custody, but at this time it's unknown whether they're "absolutely connected to this or not."
Those in the trailer were part of a presumed migrant smuggling attempt into the United States.
An investigation is being led by U.S. Homeland Security.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released the following statement:
"On June 27, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) responded to a call from San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) in reference to an alleged human smuggling event involving a tractor trailer on Quintana Road near Cassin Road. Upon arrival in the scene, HSI confirmed more than 40 deceased individuals.
"HSI San Antonio has initiated an investigation with support of SAPD. Details will be released as they are available, the criminal investigation remains ongoing.
"HSI continues its enforcement efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our communities. We will continue to address the serious public safety threat posed by human smuggling organizations and their reckless disregard for the health and safety of those smuggled."
Watch a news conference from San Antonio's mayor, fire chief and police chief below:
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released the following statement Tuesday morning:
“We're closely monitoring the absolutely horrific and heartbreaking reporting out of San Antonio, Texas. And I can tell you, the President has been going to continue to be regularly updated."
Pope Francis also tweeted about the deadly incident Tuesday morning:
"I sorrowfully heard the news of the tragedy of the #migrants in Texas and #Melilla. Let us #PrayTogether for these brothers and sisters who died following their hope of a better life; and for ourselves, may the Lord might open our hearts so these misfortunes never happen again.
Monday's discovery may be the deadliest tragedy among thousands who have died attempting to cross the U.S. border from Mexico in recent decades. Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck in Victoria.
Big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Watch raw video of the tractor trailer being towed away Tuesday morning below:
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border. As crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., migrants were led through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Heat poses a serious danger, particularly when temperatures can rise severely inside vehicles. Weather in the San Antonio area was mostly cloudy Monday, but temperatures approached 100 degrees.
Some advocates drew a link to the Biden administration’s border policies. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, wrote that he had been dreading such a tragedy for months.
“With the border shut as tightly as it is today for migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed into more and more dangerous routes. Truck smuggling is a way up,” he wrote on Twitter.
Stephen Miller, a chief architect of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, said, “Human smugglers and traffickers are wicked and evil” and that the administration’s approach to border security rewards their actions.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican running for reelection, was blunt in a tweet about the Democratic president: “These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies.”
Migrants — largely from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have been expelled more than 2 million times under a pandemic-era rule in effect since March 2020 that denies them a chance to seek asylum but encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences for getting caught. People from other countries, notably Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia, are subject to Title 42 authority less frequently due to higher costs of sending them home, strained diplomatic relations and other considerations.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most are related to heat exposure.
CBP has not published a death tally for this year but said that the Border Patrol performed 14,278 “search-and-rescue missions” in a seven-month period through May, exceeding the 12,833 missions performed during the previous 12-month period and up from 5,071 the year before.
22 Mexican nationals, seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans.