This article has been updated.

Five of 16 people rescued from a sweltering truck Monday night have died, raising the death toll in the human smuggling tragedy to 53, officials said.

The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday said it was working to identify all the victims, including 48 found dead at the scene in Southwest San Antonio. Officials initially said that 46 people had been discovered inside the truck.

As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, a Baptist Medical Center spokeswoman said three of five people transported to that hospital Monday night have died. Another died at University Hospital, said Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1). A fifth person transported to a local hospital also died, but no further information was available.

The medical examiner has determined that among the deceased 40 were men and 13 were women. Some may be younger than age 18, said Tom Peine, assistant public information officer for Bexar County. The medical examiner’s office is working with the consulates of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on identifying victims, according to a press release.

“Because of the high number of victims from last night, we have reached out to neighboring counties for assistance from their medical examiner’s offices also,” said Flores.

The people rescued from the truck suffered from heat exhaustion and heat stroke, San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood said, on a day when temperatures reached 99 degrees.

On Monday evening, authorities discovered a tractor-trailer parked near Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland with dozens of migrants packed inside with no air conditioning or water. Forty-six people inside were dead at the scene.

Federal authorities on Tuesday charged two of three people reportedly arrested Monday night in connection with the incident. Two Mexican citizens, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, were charged with possession of a weapon by a person illegally in the United States, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio.

Using registration information from the 18-wheeler, San Antonio police stopped the two men separately at a residence and subsequently searched the residence, finding firearms, according to an affidavit filed by a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Both men were found to be in the country illegally, having overstayed legal visas, the affidavit said.

Law enforcement authorities believe the migrants were being smuggled into the United States from Mexico. “All were the apparent victims of human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of human life,” said U.S. Attorney Ashley C. Hoff in a prepared statement.

It is by far the deadliest human smuggling incident to occur in San Antonio. In 2017, 39 migrants were discovered in an abandoned tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio. Ten died, and the truck’s driver was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2018.

The truck found Monday night had the same Texas Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Transportation numbers as a truck owned by Felipe Betancourt of Alamo, located about 3 1/2 hours south of San Antonio. Betancourt, who began getting calls from media members Monday night asking about the truck, said that although the identification numbers match, the truck in San Antonio is not his.

“It’s parked right in front of my house,” said Betancourt of his truck.

Law enforcement officers work at the scene in San Antonio where dozens of people were found dead inside a tractor-trailer on Monday.
Law enforcement officers work at the scene in San Antonio where dozens of people were found dead inside a tractor-trailer on Monday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Betancourt said he suspects someone connected with the 18-wheeler transporting migrants copied his TXDOT and USDOT numbers, which identify each truck’s make, model and color. His business name, Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting, was not on the truck found Monday.

“You can as easily go and take a picture of my numbers and you go to those places where they sell those vinyl stickers … and you can just tell them, give me those two numbers,” Betancourt told the San Antonio Report.

“I would never think that could happen to us,” he said of being connected to a smuggling operation.

Betancourt said that although his trucks are insulated, the temperature inside can rise to 130 degrees.

“In the summertime, when those doors are closed, those trailers inside are a hell,” Betancourt said.

Meanwhile, the remaining two patients at Baptist Medical Center were in critical condition, the spokeswoman said. 

Three other people were transported to Methodist Hospital Metropolitan downtown. All were on ventilators and in critical but stable condition, a spokeswoman said. 

Two patients were sent to Texas Vista Medical Center: a 26-year-old woman and a 32-year-old man, who are also in critical but stable condition, according to the hospital’s spokeswoman. University Hospital received a 23-year-old woman who is in stable condition and an adolescent male in critical condition, according to a hospital spokeswoman. 

Identities of the victims have yet to be confirmed, but Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s secretary of Foreign Affairs, said on Twitter that of the 50 people 22 of them were Mexican, seven were Guatemalan, two Honduran and the rest remain unidentified. 

“We are grieving,” said Ebrard. “Huge tragedy.”

He said Mexico has joined the investigation, coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security Investigations is spearheading the criminal investigation, assisted by San Antonio police.

San Antonio elected officials and residents alike mourned the loss of life Tuesday. Makeshift memorials were set up at the site where the 18-wheeler had been parked when authorities discovered it.

Irma Castruita wipes a tear from her face during a vigil on Tuesday to mourn the migrants who died as a result of being trapped inside a tractor-trailer in Southwest San Antonio.
Irma Castruita wipes a tear from her face during a vigil on Tuesday to mourn the migrants who died as a result of being trapped inside a tractor-trailer in Southwest San Antonio. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

A candlelight vigil was organized by community groups Tuesday night at Pearsall Park to honor the lives lost and survivors of the human smuggling tragedy.

Debra Ponce, who is from the South Side, lives close to where the truck carrying migrants were found.

“If we had a better way for brown and black people to enter safely, they wouldn’t go through these desperate measures,” she said. “There were entire families in that truck.”

Vigil attendee Maria Victoria de la Cruz was in tears as she spoke over the microphone.

“Where is the heart? Where is the humanity?” she asked. “How many mothers are suffering worse? Others without knowing what happened to their families.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg asked local organizations and businesses to join City of San Antonio facilities in flying flags at half-staff through Sunday, and at a press conference Tuesday, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff discussed the tragedy and invoked the inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, words written by Emma Lazarus that refer to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“Our nation was built on the back of poor immigrants that made us a great nation today,” he said. “Today, we mourn for those 51 immigrants who came to us to breathe that fresh air, but instead found death in the state of Texas.”

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Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.