Truck Driver in Migrant Tragedy Tried to Pass Himself Off as Victim: Officials

·7 min read
Instituto Nacional de Migración
Instituto Nacional de Migración

The suspected driver of a truck dumped in Texas, with more than 60 dying migrants inside, tried to pass himself off as a victim when authorities came upon the distressing scene on Monday, Mexican authorities said Wednesday.

At least 53 migrants were either found dead in sweltering heat in the 18-wheeler or have since died in various hospitals, Bexar County officials said Wednesday. At least a dozen remain hospitalized for injuries including heat exhaustion and dehydration.

The alleged driver has been identified as 45-year-old Homero Zamorano, a resident of Pasadena, Texas, who has been charged with one count of alien smuggling resulting in death. Christian Martinez, 28, has also been charged with one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death after investigators found he’d communicated with Zamorano about the smuggling. They both face up to life in prison or potentially the death penalty if convicted, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Two others were charged with gun offenses after being arrested in connection with the horrific human-smuggling tragedy, which has sparked fears of cascading death and misery at the Mexico border this summer.

Francisco Garduño, chief of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, said Wednesday that the suspected driver, who drove the big rig through the Laredo checkpoint, failed to dupe authorities into thinking he was a victim himself. Edited photos of the driver—identified by Garduño as “Homero N”—were displayed by Mexican authorities at a press conference.

According to the Express-News, Zamorano was found in a field near the ill-fated truck, which had been abandoned on a road on the outskirts of San Antonio. “He was very high on meth when he was arrested nearby and had to be taken to the hospital,” the outlet reported, citing a law-enforcement source.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Mexican authorities released photos of the truck driver as he crossed into the U.S. on Monday. They did not release his full name.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Instituto Nacional de Migración</div>

Mexican authorities released photos of the truck driver as he crossed into the U.S. on Monday. They did not release his full name.

Instituto Nacional de Migración

Police also arrested two other men—Mexican nationals identified as Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez—at an address linked to the truck and have charged them with possessing weapons while residing illegally in the U.S.

Authorities arrested the men after conducting surveillance at a home listed as the semi-truck’s registered address. There, San Antonio police recovered four handguns, a rifle, and a shotgun, according to criminal complaints obtained by The Daily Beast.

Both D'Luna-Bilbao and D'Luna-Mendez were once in America legally on B-2 visas—given to business travelers to consult with associates—but allegedly stayed past their expiration. The men, who allegedly admitted to possessing the weapons, now face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

A neighbor of D'Luna-Mendez and D'Luna-Bilbao said the house often had people coming in and out. “There was a lot of traffic going to and from the house,” the neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, said from his home on Wednesday.

The neighbor added that he suspected there were more issues at play inside the home. “I talk to a lot of the neighbors that live in this area, and we all noticed the amount of traffic circulating from the home,” he said. “I tried to avoid those specific neighbors because they were not friendly when I approached them.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The tractor trailer was abandoned in San Antonion with scores of migrants inside.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty</div>

The tractor trailer was abandoned in San Antonion with scores of migrants inside.

Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty

Zamorano, who has addresses listed in Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, appears to have a lengthy criminal history in Texas that dates back to 1995.

Those convictions include marijuana possession (1995), burglary (1996), failing to identify himself to law enforcement (2004), bail jumping and failure to appear (2016), and failing to identify himself to law enforcement (2019). Mugshots from these arrests—as well as a Facebook and Instagram account in the same name—appear to match images released by Mexican officials Wednesday.

Federal authorities did not release any details on possible charges against Zamorano on Wednesday morning. A DOJ spokesperson said any involvement of D'Luna-Bilbao and D'Luna-Mendez in the truck tragedy could not be divulged. It was not clear if any of the three men had lawyers.

Garduño said Mexican authorities were still working to find where the semi-truck originated in the country before crossing over into Texas. He said the driver was captured on camera at a border checkpoint at 2:50 p.m. Monday. Authorities found the truck abandoned with dozens of corpses inside at 5:50 p.m. local time just outside San Antonio.

The arrests came as authorities sifted through the identities of the victims and survivors in a humanitarian nightmare.

Despite Texan authorities keeping identities under wraps, local media in Central America identified four Hondurans who died in the incident, all of whom were young adults.

They were identified as Margie Tamara Paz Grajeda, 20; Fernando Jose Redondo Caballero, 19; Alejandro Miguel Andino Caballero, 22; and Adela Bertulia Ramírez, 24, reported Somos Periodismo HN.

The four, reportedly from Santa Barbara and Omoa, left their hometowns around June 4 in search of steady work and a better life in the U.S.

“We are dismayed, they went in search of the American dream, but they found death,” said Elmer Yonary Muñoz, a relative of the Caballeros, according to Somos Periodismo HN.

Thomas Peine, a Bexar County spokesperson, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that no victims have been identified with absolute certainty yet. He added that some remains in the truck appear to have been from migrants younger than 18.

Adding to the horror: One woman was misidentified after someone who was rescued alive from the truck was found to be carrying her stolen ID.

The mess was cleared up because the mother of the faux victim had recently spoken to her daughter, Haneydi Jazmin Antonio Guzmán, who had moved to Costa Rica after she got married. “I just texted her,” Guzman’s mother told local news sources. “I am aware that my daughter is fine.”

Guzman then wrote on her own page that she was “fine by the grace of God.”

Guzman’s wallet was stolen a year ago when she was traveling in Mexico, but by the time she reported it to authorities, it had already been sold in the black market, where documents that might help someone gain access to the U.S. are a premium for desperate migrants hoping to find a new life.

Stolen documents are commonly given to migrants by smugglers as part of a package that is sold to people willing to risk their lives to cross the border to America.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Shoes and clothes left in the area where the abandoned truck was found.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty</div>

Shoes and clothes left in the area where the abandoned truck was found.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty

The trailer truck carrying the migrants may also have been carrying “cloned” tags, meaning the smugglers who were using it stole the identity assigned to a different truck, according to Isaac Limon, who said his father-in-law owned the falsely implicated Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting company.

“I mean, a lot of people that we know have been through the same thing, and it’s just something very sad. But the second thing on our minds was that like, hey, what’s gonna happen to us?” Limon told The Daily Beast.

Garduño said that 27 of the identified dead came from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala, and two from El Salvador. He added that 16 victims remained hospitalized, though his press conference Wednesday came before authorities announced the death of two more migrants.

As for the woman carrying Guzman’s stolen ID, authorities say she is now listed as unknown.

—with additional reporting by B. Kay Richter

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