Laborious identification of migrant victims of the heat

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They have found victims without identity documents and in one case with a stolen document. Remote villages lack telephone service to speak with relatives and determine the whereabouts of missing migrants. Fingerprint data must cross borders to be identified by different governments.

More than a day after the discovery in San Antonio, Texas, of dozens of dead migrants due to the intense heat in the tractor-trailer where they were abandoned, the identity of few of them has been released, showing how difficult it is for the authorities to track people who cross the border clandestinely.

On Wednesday, the Bexar County coroner’s office announced two additional deaths, bringing the total death toll to 53. It said 40 of the victims were men and 13 women.

As of Tuesday afternoon, coroners had preliminarily identified 34 of the victims, said Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, a representative from the district where the truck was abandoned. Those identities were yet to be confirmed with fingerprints or other means, and there were no deadlines to complete the process, she added.

“It is a very tedious, sad and difficult process,” said the official.

The bodies, discovered Monday afternoon, were abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio, in what is believed to be the deadliest known human smuggling episode on the US-Mexico border. More than a dozen people, including four children, were hospitalized. Three people were arrested.

Huge numbers of migrants are arriving in the United States. Many of them are at serious risk crossing raging rivers and canals and burning deserts. There were nearly 240,000 migrant apprehensions in May, a third more than a year ago.

In the absence of information about the victims, desperate families of Mexican and Central American migrants frantically try to get news of their loved ones.

The truck, registered in Alamo, Texas, but with fake license plates and stickers, was carrying 67 migrants, said Francisco Garduño, head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute.

The driver was stopped when he was trying to pass himself off as a migrant, Garduño said. There are two other Mexicans in custody, he added.

Twenty-seven of the dead are believed to be of Mexican origin, according to the documents they were carrying, said the Mexican consul in San Antonio, Rubén Minutti. Several survivors were in critical condition due to brain injuries and internal bleeding, he added. About 30 people approached the consulate in search of information.

The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it confirmed the identity of two Guatemalans in the hospital and three were possibly among the dead.

The Honduran Foreign Ministry said four people in the truck had documents from the country, and it was trying to confirm their identities. Her spokeswoman Eva Ferrufino said she works with her consulate in South Texas to match names and fingerprints.

It is a laborious process that contains pitfalls such as forged or stolen documents.

Mexico’s foreign secretary identified two people hospitalized in San Antonio on Tuesday morning. But it turned out that one of the identity documents he showed on Twitter had been stolen last year in the southern state of Chiapas.

Haneydi Antonio Guzmán, 23, was alive and well in a mountain village 2,092 kilometers from San Antonio when she started receiving messages from family and friends. There is no phone service there, but she has internet access.

Journalists began showing up at her parents’ home in Escuintla—the address on the stolen identity document found in the truck—thinking they would find a grieving family.

“It’s my credential, yes it’s me with the credential, but I’m not the person who was in the trailer and who they say is hospitalized,” he said. “My relatives spoke to me concerned, asking where she was, I already told them that I was fine, that I was at home, and I made the clarification on my (Facebook page)”.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard deleted the tweet that identified her without clarifying. The other hospitalized victim the official identified Tuesday turned out to be accurate.

In the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, municipal officials from San Miguel Huautla traveled to the town of José Luis Vásquez Guzmán on Monday to look for the mother and transfer her to the capital of the entity to start the immigration procedures and ensure that I can travel to San Antonio to be with him in the hospital.

Manuel Velasco López, municipal secretary of San Miguel Huautla, said a cousin was traveling with Vásquez Guzmán and was considered missing.

And another cousin, Alejandro López, told the Milenio channel that his family worked in the fields and in construction, and they migrated because “we have nothing else to weave but hats, palm trees, and handicrafts. Planting corn, wheat and beans is what we do in this region and that makes many of our countrymen emigrate and go to the United States”.

Miguel Barbosa, governor of the neighboring state of Puebla, caused a journalistic outcry in the town of Izúcar de Matamoros on Tuesday when he publicly said that two of the dead were from there.

In that town where migrants abound, everyone wondered if there weren’t friends or neighbors among the dead in Texas. Rumors circulated, but the local government said that the presence of people from Izúcar among the dead had not been confirmed.

But going North is a real tradition, and most young people at least think about it.

“All the youth begin to think about going as soon as they turn 18,” said activist Carmelo Castañeda, who works with the NGO Casa del Migrante. “If there are no more visas, our people are going to continue dying.”

Migrants pay between $8,000 and $10,000 to be transported across the border, loaded onto a truck and taken to San Antonio. There they are transferred to smaller vehicles to take them to their destinations in different parts of the United States, said Craig Larrabee, agent in charge of the Homeland Security investigations division in San Antonio.

Conditions vary widely, from how much water they are given to whether they are allowed to have cell phones, Larrabee said.

US Rep. Henry Cuellar told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Homeland Security investigators believe the migrants boarded the truck in Laredo, but have not confirmed it. He said the truck passed a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo on Interstate Route 35 on Monday.

Before beginning the more than two-hour drive to San Antonio, the truck was parked just north of the border, Garduno said.

Authorities believe the truck discovered Monday had mechanical problems and so was dumped next to a San Antonio-area railroad track surrounded by car wrecks near a busy highway, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

San Antonio has been the scene of recurring tragedies and despair in recent years starring migrants in tractor-trailers.

In 2017, 10 migrants died trapped in a truck in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio. In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a truck southeast of the city. In 2018, fifty migrants were found alive in a truck driven by a man who said he would be paid $3,000. The conduit was sentenced to five years in prison.

Other tragedies have occurred south of the border. In December, more than 50 died when the truck they were traveling in overturned in southern Mexico. In October, Mexican authorities found 652 migrants in six trucks detained at a military checkpoint.

During a vigil Tuesday night at a San Antonio park, many of the more than 50 attendees expressed sadness, helplessness and anger at the deaths and an immigration system they see as broken.

In Puebla, farmer Juan Sánchez Carrillo, 45, felt pain upon receiving the news of the deaths in Texas.

He himself was saved from death when he and his friends escaped a dozen thieves in the Otay Mesa Mountains near San Diego. The criminals — who Sánchez believes were in cahoots with the smugglers who took him across the border — pointed rifles at the group of 35 migrants and threatened to kill them if they didn’t give them $1,000 each.

“For the polleros, we migrants are not human,” said Sánchez Carrillo. “For them we are nothing more than merchandise.”

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