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Driver of truck 53 migrants died in makes first court appearance

A U.S. magistrate judge on Thursday formally charged Homero Zamorano Jr. in connection with the deadly human smuggling event.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — A Texas man who authorities say was the driver of the tractor-trailer where 53 migrants were found dead was arraigned Thursday in San Antonio federal court on human smuggling charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty.

According to court documents, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, was identified through surveillance footage obtained by Homeland Security agents as the driver of the tractor-trailer spotted traveling through an immigration checkpoint about 150 south of San Antonio.

He was arrested by San Antonio police Monday at the scene of the nation’s deadliest human smuggling event after attempting to disguise himself as one of the victims he was allegedly smuggling, and was charged Wednesday with one count of alien smuggling resulting in death. He made his initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Chestney on Thursday afternoon, where he hardly spoke except when responding to the judge.

“Do you understand the charges against you and your rights?” Chestney asked Zamorano.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said softly.

Zamorano, who is originally from the Rio Grande Valley and recently resided in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, faces life in prison or the death penalty if convicted, a $250,000 fine and up to five years of supervised release. Seated next to his two federal public defenders, Zamorano wore a plain white T-shirt, gray sweat pants and a blue surgical face mask as the courtroom gallery, made up of mostly media and federal agents, observed the brief hearing.

“In your case, the government has filed a motion against you to detain you pending trial,” Chestney told Zamorano before remanding him to the custody of U.S. marshals. She set a July 6 detention hearing where she will determine whether he is eligible for bail.

Of the 64 migrants in the trailer, 48 were found dead at the scene Monday after San Antonio police responded to 911 calls from concerned citizens that led them to a tractor-trailer parked along a rural road in the city’s southwest side. Sixteen of the undocumented individuals were taken to local hospitals, with five later dying, bringing the death toll to a staggering 53.

“At the scene, SAPD officers discovered multiple individuals, some still inside the tractor trailer, some on the ground and in nearby brush, many of them deceased and some of them incapacitated,” according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas.

Justice Department officials have identified 22 of the deceased as Mexican nationals, seven as Guatemalan nationals, two Honduran nationals and 17 of unknown origin but suspected to be undocumented non-citizens.

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