CHICAGO (AP) — It could take months for investigators to determine what preceded the deaths of at least nine people found with dozens of ailing individuals in a tractor-trailer discovered outside a Walmart in San Antonio, Texas, in what authorities are calling an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong.
But previous cases of smugglers using similar trucks to move human cargo shed light on the dangerous method of human trafficking — and how it can quickly turn fatal.
Here's a look at how smugglers deploy and use large trucks to move people:
HOW COMMON IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING BY TRUCK?
Border officials have reported an uptick in the number of people-smuggling incidents using tractor-trailers. That included one on July 7, when Border Patrol agents in Laredo, Texas, found 72 people from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador locked inside a trailer. Weeks before, they'd rescued 44 people from Mexico and Guatemala discovered after police stopped an 18-wheeler near one of the city's international bridges.
Whether this recent increase is a trend and what might explain it is hard to know. A recent report from European-based global -risk group Verisk Maplecroft suggests that a harder line on border security by the Trump administration might be leading migrants to accept the risks of more dangerous smuggling methods.
By far the most notorious and best documented case occurred in 2003, when 19 of about 100 people being smuggled in a truck trailer in south Texas died of heat-related injuries; that included a 7-year-old boy. More than a dozen smugglers were convicted in that case, including the American commercial driver at the wheel, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, and the purported head of the smuggling ring, Karla Patricia Chavez-Joya, a Honduran national.
WHERE ARE THE IMMIGRANTS FROM?
Transportation by truck is often one of the final steps in a process that can begin months before somewhere in Mexico or more than a thousand miles from the U.S.-Mexican border in Honduras or Guatemala. A review of court documents in other cases indicates the tractor-trailers are often brought in only after Mexicans and Central Americans arrive by train, bus or car to the Mexican-U.S. border region — and then slip into the U.S. by foot or by raft across the Rio Grande.
In the 2003 case, the pickup site for the immigrants was near Harlingen, Texas, about 20 miles (32.19 kilometers) from the U.S.-Mexican border. The plan was to drive the tractor-trailer through an immigration checkpoint 50 miles (80.46 kilometers) away on Highway 77 near Sarita, Texas; once through the crossing, the immigrants were to be transferred to separate vans bound for Houston.
The objective of immigrants who make it undetected across the border typically isn't to remain in that border area. Most hope to make it to large U.S. cities, like Chicago or New York, where they may have jobs or family waiting for them. That's where the trucks come in. Smugglers know there are hundreds and thousands of immigrants desperate to get away from the border as fast as possible. And they see the money-making opportunity. The more people they can move at one time, the more the profit.
In the 2003 case, the smugglers actively sought non-Hispanic, American drivers who they believed would be less likely to raise suspicions and more likely to make it through the Sarita checkpoint. Tyrone Williams, a licensed truck driver from New York, fit that description. Just before picking up his human cargo, Williams had hauled milk products from New York in his refrigerated truck.
© 2017 Associated Press