By Daina Beth Solomon, Jackie Botts and Laura Gottesdiener
TLAPACOYAN, Mexico (Reuters) - At first, Mexican migrants Pablo Ortega and Julio Lopez enjoyed the smuggling equivalent of a first-class ticket to the United States: complimentary beers, safe houses with video games, even a week at a hunting ranch.
Both had borrowed thousands of dollars and paid extra to secure what smugglers promised would be a comfortable trip avoiding the worst dangers of illegal border crossings.
On June 27, their special treatment ended: crammed and gasping for air in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer in Texas with more than 60 other migrants.
Nearly all, including Ortega and Lopez, died in the suffocating heat. It was the deadliest U.S. smuggling incident of recent times.
Their journeys, reconstructed by Reuters via dozens of texts, photos and video messages with their families, provide a rare window into the world of human smuggling: a billion-dollar trade growing ever more deadly.
As tighter controls drive migrants to greater risks, experts say smugglers are increasingly selling more expensive routes they advertise as "secure," "special" or "VIP." Those options usually promise vehicle transportation rather than walking across the desert, as well as more comfortable stays.
Ortega agreed to pay $13,000 and Lopez $12,000, their families said. That is far above the average $2,000-$7,000 for Mexican migrants, according to Mexican government data from 2019.
Embarking separately on their quests for a better life, they were told they would travel alone or in small groups, their families said. At least one other victim, Jazmin Bueso, 37, from Honduras, also paid for the costlier trip, her brother told Reuters.
Ortega, a jocular 19-year-old sporting baseball caps over his dark hair, left in mid-May by bus from his home in Tlapacoyan – a hilly town in the southeast state of Veracruz ringed by banana plantations.
His girlfriend was newly pregnant, and Ortega was determined to make it to Florida, where his mother lived. There he could earn money to send home for the care of his soon-to-be first child and save to build a house.
Video: Families struggle after deadly smuggling case
'GUARANTEED, 100% SAFE'
Lopez set off on June 8 from Benito Juarez in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. A sawmill worker, 32, slim with sincere dark eyes, Lopez hoped to send money home for the autism care of his youngest of three children. That son's name - Tadeo - was tattooed on his left arm.
"You won't go through the desert ... there won't be any danger," Adriana Gonzalez recalled hearing the smuggler tell her husband over the phone before he left. "The trip you have is guaranteed, 100% safe."
Violence, poverty and COVID-19 have accelerated migration from Latin America to the United States. Crossings from Mexico hit a record 1.7 million so far this fiscal year through June, while deaths were the worst ever recorded at 728 last year and look set to keep pace if not surpass that in 2022.
Seeking to evade the ever-expanding U.S. border control infrastructure, smugglers are turning to riskier methods, including a boom in the use of 18-wheel big rigs.
Vehicle and transport-related border deaths grew more quickly than any other cause, between 2020 and 2021, according to U.N. data.
To pay the smuggling fee, Ortega's mother, Rafaela Alvarez, 37, sold a mobile home. But when he reached the border, the minders said they wanted another $2,000 to take him on a safer route avoiding the desert, crossing the Rio Grande river and riding in a truck sleeping compartment with three others to Houston.
Alvarez pawned gold jewelry to come up with the extra money. She remembers specifically warning her son not to get into a crowded trailer.
"The air will run out," she told him in a video call from the construction site where she worked and hoped he would too.
Over the next two weeks, Ortega sent photos and videos from a spacious, well-decorated home where he played video games and smugglers treated him to pizza and Tecate beer while they waited for border patrol presence to decrease.
Ortega finally crossed the Rio Grande on May 29, but a U.S. agent caught him past the riverbank and sent him back to Mexico.
Lopez did not make it across the first time either.
After flying into the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, smugglers drove him to the border town of Matamoros.
For four days, Lopez stayed in a small, hot concrete house with two other migrants. Then smugglers guided Lopez across the Rio Grande in a boat and into a car, just as he had been promised. But the next day, border officers stopped the car and returned Lopez to Mexico.
On or around June 14 – his family is not quite sure - Lopez crossed again, this time successfully. In Texas, he walked three hours through desert to a private hunting lodge near Laredo where he stayed about a week. A video Lopez sent to his wife shows a large wooden house, decorated with an American flag and the skulls of wild deer. "It's super cool," Lopez says in the video.
During this time, Ortega had been trying to cross. But the river's high waters made it difficult. At one point, he saw a migrant drown in the strong current.
On June 17, he donned a red life-vest, flashed a thumbs up in a selfie and climbed into a small inflatable boat for what would, finally, be a successful trip.
A day later he celebrated his 20th birthday with a mayonnaise sandwich in a Texas safe house. Though now on American soil, Ortega's journey wasn't over: the Border Patrol maintains checkpoints as far as 100 miles inside.
"There's only a little left (to go)," he wrote to his sister. Two days later she sent Ortega ultrasound images of his baby.
On June 21, Lopez made a final call to alert his family that the smugglers would soon confiscate his phone. They were about to take him to another ranch where he would wait a couple of days before being smuggled past an interior checkpoint on the way to San Antonio, Lopez told Gonzalez.
"Tell my children that I love them and if I am able to get through, everything will be different," Gonzalez remembered Lopez saying.
The next day, Ortega, still in his Texas safe house, told his mom he was starting to worry about the number of migrants arriving. "We're already a ton of people," he wrote.
Then communication ceased.
At 2:50 p.m. on June 27, an 18-wheeler cargo truck with a red 1995 Volvo cab rolled through a U.S. government checkpoint near Encinal, Texas, 40 miles north of Laredo.
A surveillance photograph obtained by Mexican authorities and published in a briefing report captures the driver, clad in a black striped shirt, leaning out of the window with a wide grin.
Just before 6 p.m., a worker in an industrial area in the outskirts of San Antonio, more than 100 miles further north, heard a cry for help, which he followed to a trailer abandoned beside a road, according to local officials.
First responders arrived minutes later. The trailer's partially opened doors revealed stacks of bodies hot to the touch, officials said. Other bodies were found splayed across the ground and in nearby brush, court documents show.
Temperatures in San Antonio had swelled to 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius) that afternoon, but responders found no water or air conditioning inside the trailer.
The death count eventually rose to 53, including 26 Mexicans, 21 Guatemalans and six Hondurans. Police found the suspected driver hiding near the victims, allegedly under the influence of methamphetamine.
A U.S. grand jury indicted four men on charges related to the incident, ranging from illegal firearm possessions to smuggling accusations that could be punishable by life in prison or the death sentence.
By nightfall, the horrific news had spread throughout Mexico and Central America.
For over a week, Lopez's smugglers fed his family's hopes he was still alive until Gonzalez identified her husband's body through photographs on July 5.
Since his death, Gonzalez said she is unable to afford care for their autistic son.
Alvarez, fearing the worst, called Ortega's smugglers more than 30 times to try and confirm her son was alive. They blocked her number.
When Alvarez traveled to San Antonio to identify Ortega's body, it was the first time seeing her son since 2014.
At the funeral in his hometown, a ballad played remembering migrants who suffocated in a Texas boxcar 35 years ago. Ortega's family tossed red roses on the grave as the lyrics echoed: "The air began to run out, and there was nothing they could do. No one heard those cries for help."
His baby is due on Dec. 31.
(Reporting by Daina Solomon in Tlapacoyan, Jackie Botts in Oaxaca City and Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey; Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Ted Hesson in Washington, Miguel Angel Gonzalez in Tlapacoyan, Jose Torres in Chiapas, Adrees Latif in Roma, Texas, Jason Buch in San Antonio; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Andrew Cawthorne)