The alleged smuggler had tried to hide in the brush — high on methamphetamines — as authorities pulled the bodies of dozens of lifeless migrants from the 18-wheeler he’d just driven up Interstate-35 and abandoned on a San Antonio street.
Witnesses soon spotted the man in a black-and-white striped shirt. Security footage helped confirm who he was: Hours before, a camera captured him driving the vehicle through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint.
The truck passed through with the migrants inside but was not inspected by agents, said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Texas’s 28th Congressional District and shared details of his briefing from U.S. law enforcement officials with The Washington Post. A federal law enforcement official confirmed the finding that the driver was high on drugs when captured.
“The truck was waved through because the traffic was backing up,” Cuellar said, noting that many of the Border Patrol agents in South Texas are busy “taking care of migrants” arriving in record numbers.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, appeared in federal court in San Antonio on Thursday for the first time since the grisly discovery of the bodies. He and an alleged accomplice, Christian Martinez, 28, are facing charges of immigrant smuggling resulting in death, which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison or the death penalty, in addition to hefty fines. They are among four men charges in connection with the worst smuggling disaster of its kind on U.S. soil.
U.S. magistrate Judge Elizabeth Chestney in the Western District of Texas ordered Zamorano, a U.S. citizen, held until a detention hearing Wednesday. Martinez was arrested in another district and is awaiting transfer to San Antonio, court records show.
Zamorano’s court appearance came as families across Mexico and Central America are beginning to learn the fate of loved ones who’d embarked on a journey to America and ended up dead in a trailer. Fifty-three migrants have died and nearly a dozen remained in the hospital. Many were young and strong, eager to join relatives in the United States. Some were only teenagers.
Mexican and U.S. officials have begun piecing together a timeline of what happened — and why the truck’s human cargo was not detected while passing through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. An official with knowledge of the probe said scouts working for smugglers in the area timed the truck’s passage during a shift change at the checkpoint, hoping to take advantage of the temporary distraction.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican running for reelection, has faulted the Biden administration for the tragedy. Democrats accuse the state leader of hypocrisy — noting that he did not make the same accusations against former President Donald Trump after 10 migrants died in July 2017 in San Antonio, barely four miles from the tractor trailer discovered Monday.
Abbott said this week he would add highway checkpoints to screen trucks, new “strike teams” to detect and arrest border crossers, and miles of concertina wire along the Rio Grande. But several Trump-era restrictions remain in place. Trump’s Title 42 border policy, which was enacted to allow the government to expel migrants during the pandemic, is still in effect because of a lawsuit filed by Republican-led states.
The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled for the Biden administration on the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires some asylum-seekers who enter the country, mainly from Central and South America, to return to Mexico while they await a hearing. The court said the administration had the authority to reverse the Trump-era initiative.
Cuellar, whose district stretches from San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border, said Border Patrol checkpoint footage showed the truck headed southbound Monday on Interstate 35 toward the border city of Laredo, where it likely picked up migrants from a “stash house.” The abandoned residences or warehouses are used by smugglers to hide migrants after they cross the border into the United States. Then they wait until it is safe to transport them north to bigger cities.
The eighteen-wheeler then headed northbound and passed through the checkpoint, he said, the migrants undetected at a station where agents are often stretched thin.
Security cameras spotted the truck at 2:50 p.m. Monday at a checkpoint in Encinal, Texas, north of the border city of Laredo. The surveillance footage in Encinal shared by Mexican officials showed Zamorano smiling as he leaned out the window, motioning with one hand, wearing the black and white striped shirt and a baseball cap.
“There’s an issue with manpower and they don’t have the right or same technology at checkpoints that they do at ports of entry,” Cuellar said. “It’s one of those things.”
The truck, Cuellar said, was “cloned” or disguised to look like vehicles that would normally transit the area and identified with registration numbers that are copied or falsified. A federal official confirmed that the truck had been outfitted to evade detection.
“These criminal organizations have cloned FedEx, UPS trucks and even Border Patrol vehicles,” Cuellar said.
Zamorano’s public defender declined to comment at the courthouse.
The U.S. Border Patrol does not inspect every truck that passes through the highway checkpoints, and agents typically direct vehicles to secondary inspection lanes only after drivers raises suspicion of criminal activity, CBP officials say. The inspection process is far more thorough at ports of entry along the Mexico border, where CBP officials operate sophisticated scanning equipment and wield broader legal authority to conduct searches.
In addition to Zamorano and Martinez, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, both citizens of Mexico, were arrested on charges of being undocumented immigrants in possession of several weapons and at least one rifle. If convicted of the weapons charges, both defendants face up to 10 years in prison.
Authorities said they arrested the D’Lunas on the weapons charges after tracing the tractor-trailer’s state registration to their address in San Antonio.
Cynthia Orr, the court-appointed lawyer for D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, said D’Luna-Bilbao is the father of D’Luna Mendez and both live there with their family and work as mechanics. She said they owned weapons to defend themselves against crime in the neighborhood and emphasized that they have not been charged with smuggling.
“I don’t know what we’re actually dealing with yet,” she said.