The tragic deaths of at least 53 people in a tractor trailer in San Antonio are an emphatic reminder of the dangers migrants face — and how the risks have only gotten higher as both law enforcement and smugglers use increasingly sophisticated methods trying to outwit each other.
The trapped people were found only after a worker heard someone crying for help, leading to the discovery of dozens of bodies. Just 16 people — 12 adults and four children — were initially found alive; five of them later died at area hospitals.
San Antonio was the site of a similar tragedy in 2017, when 10 migrants died. They were found with dozens of other people in an unventilated trailer that was left sitting in the summer heat at a Wal-Mart parking lot.
"Honestly, I'm surprised that it doesn't happen more often," said Roger Enriquez, an associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, "because of the gauntlet that folks have to run in order to get to this country."
Also not surprised: Jerry Robinette, who until 2013 was the special agent in charge in San Antonio for Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
While the scale of the latest tragedy is shocking, he said, the fact that it happened isn't surprising, given the prevalence of using semis to transport migrants.
"I can assure you it happens more than we realize," he tells NPR. "And obviously, more get by than we catch. So I can only imagine just how pervasive the practice is."
As that suggests, the tragedy also says a lot about U.S. immigration at the southern border.
It's not as basic as crowding into a truck in Mexico
Both Robinette and Enriquez believe the migrants were not likely brought over the border from Mexico in the truck.
"This is a very sophisticated operation that entails vast networks into Mexico, Central America, all the way back up into Texas and the Midwest, East, West Coast, what have you," said Enriquez, who is also the executive director of Westside Community Partnerships in San Antonio.
"The tractor trailer part of the journey may very well end here, but it didn't start necessarily in Mexico because [U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents] use very sophisticated undercarriage X-ray systems," he added.
People who want to evade the authorities face an array of challenges, from X-rays to K-9 teams and cameras. As in the 2017 tragedy, it's likely that people who were in the trailer in San Antonio this week had crossed the border on foot, before gathering in Laredo to be loaded into a truck.
"Very frequently what happens is that they're guided around the Border Patrol checkpoints, and then they're reunited and picked up by a tractor trailer driver," Robinette said.
"In many instances, once they get to a big city like San Antonio, they will then go in smaller vehicles, Suburbans or vans," into other parts of the U.S., Enriquez said.
The truck in San Antonio was "cloned," a company says
The truck found in San Antonio bore numbers and other identifiers suggesting it was operated by Betancourt Trucking And Harvesting, based in Alamo along the border. But the company's owners told NPR their truck, a red Volvo, has nothing to do with the truck holding stricken migrants.
They say the smugglers apparently "cloned" information from their vehicle to elude scrutiny.
"The [license] plates don't correspond to us," Felipe Betancourt Jr. said. "The only thing that got stolen from us was the Texas DOT number and the USDA number on the side of the truck."
Betancourt, who says his company has been helping farms harvest and ship watermelons and other produce grown in the Rio Grande Valley, said that when he and his father were contacted about the truck, it took them a moment to figure out what was going on.
"All those people," he said. "I mean, we're still in shock right now."
San Antonio is a hub for cargo, including migrants
The city is just 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, on two busy corridors that reach across the U.S.: I-10 running between Los Angeles and Florida and I-35 running from the border crossing at Laredo up north to Minnesota.
"Once you get to San Antonio, you can go to Houston, you can go to Dallas, you can go further north into the Midwest. Of course, I-35 goes all the way up to Minnesota," Enriquez said. "So it is an important corridor for goods and unfortunately, also for smuggling and the trafficking of persons."
Human traffickers thrive in areas where their trucks can mix in with other vehicles. And in Laredo, thousands of trucks cross the border each day. Smugglers operate their own logistics chain — but with safehouses instead of warehouses.
"I mean, it is literally a needle in a haystack," Robinette said. "If you've ever been to that border, you just see the frequency and the volume of trucks that are traveling northbound through the different checkpoints. It's a miracle that [agents] come across what they do come across."
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said in a tweet that the dead include 22 Mexicans, 7 Guatemalans and 2 Hondurans. The others have not yet been identified.
Migrants pay tens of thousands of dollars to smugglers
For migrants, the financial costs of crossing are steep.
"We've heard reports of tens of thousands of dollars, depending on where they're coming from and where their destination is," Enriquez said.
"We also have to keep in mind that many of these folks already have family in the United States, and they're simply either trying to reunify with family here" or are in families with mixed citizenship, he said. In turn, loved ones who are working in the U.S. often help migrants raise the money to pay smugglers' steep fees, Enriquez added.
"It's a terrible human tragedy, and it continues to happen on a too-regular basis, because we have really failed to address two of the most important components of immigration law, which is family reunification and labor," he said.
Noting flaws in the U.S. guest worker program and other issues, Enriquez added, "Basically, we've stayed in a holding pattern for the last 10 or 15 years."
One thing that has changed is the difficulty of crossing into the U.S. Because of the measures people take to elude new technologies, Enriquez said, migrants' journeys continue to get more dangerous.
Another part of the problem, Robinette said, is that when things go wrong, human traffickers will look after themselves first.
"At the end of the day, these smugglers have very, very little value or care" for the people they're bringing into the U.S., he said.
For migrants who rely on human smugglers, the heat sharply increases the risks they face. The San Antonio area has been experiencing extreme heat, with record temperatures topping 100 degrees this month.
"Any mistakes are essentially a death sentence to folks," Enriquez said, adding that if a driver doesn't show up on time to pick up a load, or if a refrigeration unit fails, "You're putting folks in a tremendous amount of peril."
Robinette says the U.S. has long sent mixed messages to would-be migrants, who then risk everything for the chance of a better life, despite the dangers and the threat of prosecution.
Until the U.S. can change the dynamic, he said, "we're going to have people doing anything and everything they can to try to get in here and many times risking their lives, like they did in this situation."