Mexican Ambassador Gerónimo Gutiérrez did not mince words Wednesday when asked about the human smuggling incident in San Antonio that left 10 migrants dead and 30 others suffering from heat-related injuries after being imprisoned in the back of an airless tractor-trailer.

“This is a human tragedy and it should be treated as such above anything else,” Gutiérrez said after participating in a panel about trade relations at the Mexican Cultural Institute. “The level of suffering that these people went through is just extraordinary. Transnational organized crime, in this case human smuggling, operates on both sides of the border. It operates here in the United States and not only in Mexico.

“We need to manage better the way people move among our countries in a way that is legal, humane, and orderly.”

The victims of the incident, the majority from different parts of Mexico and a few from Guatemala, paid smugglers thousands of dollars to take them across the Mexican border into San Antonio. The migrants’ final destination is unknown, but at least two of them told federal authorities their stopping point was San Antonio.

At least 18 individuals who were discharged after being treated in area hospitals are in federal custody as material witnesses, said Daryl Fields, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told the Rivard Report in an email Wednesday. All are being represented by San Antonio attorney Michael McCrum.

“The [immigrants] should be treated as victims,” Gutiérrez said, adding that he was able to speak with some of the survivors and their families during his visit to San Antonio. “Accordingly, they should be given every possible relief that is permitted by law here while they remain in the United States.”

The driver of the truck, James Matthew Bradley Jr., has been charged with one count of transporting illegal aliens. The charges carry the maximum sentence of death or life in prison, as well as a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release in the event he is paroled. Bradley told authorities he was unaware of the human cargo until he took a bathroom break at a Southside Walmart and heard banging inside the trailer. He said he opened the doors and “was surprised when he was run over by Spanish people.”

A vigil has been made underneath a shade tree alongside the Wal-Mart parking lot where the victims were discovered.
A vigil underneath a tree in the Walmart parking lot is set up where the victims were discovered. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Adán Valdivia López, mayor of the small city of Calvillo in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, told the Rivard Report in a phone interview that at least four residents of his city were among those inside the tractor-trailer. Other victims came from the states of Veracruz, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Jalisco, Nayarit, the State of Mexico, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Mexico City, according to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Valdivia said that the material witnesses, including 18-year old Johnny Serna and his uncle Mario Ramírez from Calvillo, are being held in detention centers for the time being, but that they will likely be deported.

“That’s what happens ordinarily,” Valdivia said in Spanish, “but each victim’s situation is different so they can go before a judge and try to explore some benefits that stem from the situation they lived through. This part is beyond the Mexican government’s hands, and each has legal representation from the Mexican Consulate or a personal lawyer.”

Instead of pointing fingers, Gutiérrez said, both countries must work together to address a complicated smuggling network that continues to operate on both sides of the border.

“It’s a shared concern and responsibility and nobody can be satisfied after this incident,” he said. “The way we manage the movement of people between our countries – We cannot be satisfied. It’s not an issue of promoting undocumented immigration. The Mexican government does not advocate for undocumented immigration, but it’s just a reality that we need to face together in order to avoid these types of incidents.”

The search for the “American Dream” is a global phenomenon, Valdivia said, and the main motivator for Mexicans to cross the U.S.-Mexico border is higher wages. Calvillo has a long history with braceros – Mexican laborers who are admitted legally into the U.S. for seasonal agricultural work – Valdivia added, so “going north” has always been deeply embedded in the culture of the small city in Aguascalientes.

“If you have friends, cousins, or family members in the U.S. they encourage those still living in Mexico to risk crossing over,” Valdivia said. “I lived it myself and managed to cross with help from friends. For two years, when I was around 18 years old, I went back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. working in construction.

“The journey is full of risks and I had my own negative experience when I crossed the border – everyone suffers crossing through deserts or being boxed in inside trailers. A lot of them never return to Mexico because they don’t want to live through that again. This recent devastating news [of the trailer in San Antonio] … there are millions of stories in Mexico about what people go through to realize that longed-for dream.”

It is Mexico’s responsibility to generate better employment opportunities so people are not forced to migrate, Gutiérrez said, and migration anywhere should not be a forced decision, as it is in many cases. However, there is also “the other side of the coin,” he explained, and that involves recognizing that there is a high demand for people to come and work in the U.S.

“I don’t think that it is intellectually honest to close your eyes to that reality also being here … and immigrants want to do it legally, they have good values, they are hardworking people,” Gutiérrez said. “[If] you open more efficient, legal avenues for that to happen, people will choose the legal avenue. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish and that’s what the Mexican government has always been trying to accomplish.”

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Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...