One in custody in connection with suspected human smuggling incident

Nicole Acevedo and The Associated Press
·3 min read

One person has been taken into federal custody as authorities continue searching for dozens of migrants who called 911 while trapped inside a tank truck unable to breathe, a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Friday.

Details about the individual, including the person's name and alleged role in the "suspected human smuggling event," have not been released.

The chilling call, which took place Monday but was obtained by NBC News on Friday, triggered an urgent search for the migrants in Texas. Surveillance images initially showed the tank truck in the San Antonio area, but a source close to the investigation told NBC News Friday night that the truck may have been found empty in Laredo.

In the 911 call recording, a man can be heard telling operators in Spanish that he and about 80 other people are trapped in a white tank truck. In the background, other people can be heard screaming for help, saying that they’re out of air.

"We can't see anything. We're inside a tank truck. God, we have no oxygen," the caller tells the 911 dispatcher in Spanish. Another man can also be heard in the background saying, "Help! Blessed God!" as he struggles to breathe.

Officials with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations unit and the U.S. Border Patrol in Laredo have been working alongside numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies as they investigate the the incident, an ICE spokesperson said.

"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," the agency said in a statement.

Authorities are seeking the public's help in finding the tank truck, where some people may have already died, NBC's sister network Telemundo reported.

"I'm only interested in knowing if these people are OK," Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, whose jurisdiction includes San Antonio, told Telemundo in Spanish on Thursday. "I'm not interested in arresting the people who were inside the truck."

Salazar also asked anyone who may have seen the incident or recorded it on dashcam footage to come forward.

Instances of human trafficking happen thousands of times a day nationwide, Salazar said, and traffickers “herd these people like cattle.”

“The only difference is, in this instance, we were able to get a glimpse because this gentleman was able to place a call,” he said.

In 2017, nine people died and 20 were hospitalized in dire condition, many with extreme dehydration and heatstroke, after being crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer found parked outside a Walmart in San Antonio. The driver was arrested and authorities at the time called the case an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong.

“We’re looking at a human-trafficking crime,” San Antonio police Chief William McManus said after the 2017 finding, calling that situation “a horrific tragedy.”

Body cameras captured a similar incident in 2015, when Texas officers discovered suffocating migrants inside a tractor-trailer.

"These human smuggling organizations don't care for human life," Aristides Jimenez, a former Homeland Security investigator, told NBC News. "All they care is to make profit."