When City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) awoke to a 2:30 a.m. phone call Sunday from San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, he was not prepared for what came next. Rushing to a Southwest side Walmart a mere two-minute drive from his home, Saldaña stood silently alongside the chief in the dark parking lot taking in a scene unlike anything he had experienced.

Eight lifeless bodies of migrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala were covered with tarps and lined up in a tragic tableau of human smuggling.

“My initial reaction was shock at the human tragedy, nothing more than that,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report Wednesday. A total of 10 immigrants are now dead and nearly 30 others suffer from heat-related injuries and trauma after they were smuggled into the U.S. inside a tractor-trailer. Many others who finally escaped the tractor-trailer’s suffocating confines were hurriedly ferried away by smugglers, according to video footage now in the hands of law enforcement authorities.

The tractor-trailer’s air-conditioning unit was not functioning on the hours-long journey from Laredo to San Antonio, leaving the migrants crammed inside the locked vehicle trapped in the deadly South Texas heat without proper ventilation, food, or water, and without any mode of escape.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4).

“There was no afterthought,” Saldaña continued. “I couldn’t be a councilman standing there looking at lifeless bodies…the worst part of it is you can’t even paint a scenario as horrific as the reality. The details of the last moments of their life is more than a cruel imagination can imagine.”

The victims, most hailing from different parts of Mexico and at least a few from Guatemala, paid smugglers thousands of dollars to travel north from the Mexican border to San Antonio. The driver of the truck, James Matthew Bradley Jr., told authorities that he was unaware of the human cargo packed inside, even though one immigrant survivor told reporters they yelled for water and pounded on the truck for hours to get the driver’s attention.

His account to law enforcement is rife with holes, contradictions, and information about who he was working for and with on what he claims was a road trip from a small town in central Iowa to the border and back to San Antonio, supposedly on his way back south to Brownsville.

Bradley told authorities he only learned of the immigrants’ presence after making a bathroom stop at the Walmart and heard banging coming from inside the trailer. He said he opened the rear doors and “was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people.” He did not call the police. Bradley, a diabetic with a series of amputations, had lost his commercial vehicle license three months ago, according to the San Antonio Express-News, failing to provide a medical card.

The immigrants were discovered after a Walmart employee gave one of the escaped passengers some water and notified the San Antonio Police Department.

“[McManus] saw the individuals before they were covered, and I’m sure he’s seen similar things like that, but he told me he hasn’t seen anyone pass away in this manner through heat exhaustion and asphyxiation,” Saldaña said.

McManus told Saldaña that the expressions on the faces of the victims were different than what he’s seen in other tragedies.

“It was just a lot of shock,” Saldaña said. “I was standing alongside the chief as he was feeling the same thing.”

Of the 39 people in the trailer, 34 were Mexican nationals and seven Mexicans are among the dead, according to the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio. Another deceased was from Guatemala, the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry confirmed, and there are two known survivors from Guatemala. As of Wednesday, 27 remain hospitalized, according to a statement from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There is no count on the number of migrants who fled the scene, and authorities are not disclosing information about the survivors, such as their hometowns or intended destinations. At least two survivors whose accounts are cited in a U.S. Attorney’s office document said San Antonio was their intended destination. Federal authorities will not disclose whether the surviving migrants will be deported or detained once they are released from hospitals.

“Actions have been initiated to facilitate family visits to hospitals and procedures for the repatriation of remains,” the statement from the Mexican Consulate reads. “The Consulate General will continue to work closely with local and federal authorities to identify the nationality of all victims. In addition, the consulate is using all legal means at its disposal to offer assistance to Mexican survivors.”

The survivors – while being cared for as victims – are in a state of detention of sorts, as the media grapple with no access to the patients or family members and struggle to piece together additional accounts of the smuggling enterprise, or the identity of the victims. Immigration experts told the Express-News that the smuggling victims could be eligible for visas as crime victims, but the federal government is reluctant to provide assistance to obtain such permits.

“We have been offering to help [victims], but the reality is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is in charge of the investigation,” Catholic Charities CEO Antonio Fernandez told the Rivard Report Tuesday. The organization provides more than 40 bilingual and culturally sensitive programs in 19 counties throughout the Archdiocese of San Antonio. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes – medical care, counseling, legal help, whatever these people need.”

Several nonprofits, including Catholic Charities, RAICES, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) are committed to helping the survivors and families of the human smuggling incident and are accepting donations. LULAC is offering guidance for survivors at 210-233-7327 and has set up a donation page on its national website. RAICES, an immigrant advocacy organization that provides refuge and legal assistance to immigrant families, also has a donation page.

“This is a tragedy that happened on Sunday but the reality is that this is a day-to-day problem,” Fernandez said. “We help immigrants every day, and last year we helped over 21,000 people. Since Sunday we spoke to the City, County, ICE, the Mexican consulate, and area hospitals to see [how we can assist]. I’ve been in talks with the County to open a shelter for human trafficking – people need a safe place to be.”

LULAC National Vice President of the Southwest Gabriel Rosales called the human smuggling incident a “massacre” in a statement issued Monday.

“The tragedy is a result of severe anti-immigrant laws whose only purpose is to further marginalize an already vulnerable population,” Rosales said. “…We need comprehensive immigration reform to help stop these senseless deaths. Such reform is consistent with our American values and in everyone’s economic interest.

“People who put their lives at risk in this manner are doing so because they have no choice. They are fleeing incomprehensible violence and have nothing to lose. There are no laws that will prevent immigrants from pursuing the American dream. They see hope on the horizon of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, and will risk everything in pursuit of that hope.”

Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill championed by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was signed into law in May and goes into effect Sept. 1. The City of San Antonio joined MALDEF and other municipalities and organizations in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the law. A judge is considering a temporary injunction.

The law directs municipal law enforcement to play a more active role in determining the citizenship of individuals who come under police scrutiny. Law enforcement leaders in San Antonio and across the state opposed the legislation, but cities face penalties if they fail to comply with the new law.

“Today’s tragedy is why I made passing Senate Bill 4 to ban sanctuary cities — which is now law — a top priority,” Patrick, a Republican, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday afternoon. “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country. We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims.”

But SB 4 is the kind of legislation that can lead people to take the same risks that the 39 people inside that parked trailer, Saldaña said.

“[Despite] much rhetoric, be it positive or negative, there are still individuals that will come regardless of what [Gov. Greg] Abbott says on the speaker phone,” he said. “They are less worried about border patrol and more worried about the dangers of the smugglers themselves, because they know they are carrying money and trying to get across. These traffickers are the only ones who win when a system like this is broken.”

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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...