HOUSTON (CN) — At the Southwest border, people smugglers are inviting another mass tragedy. Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint north of Laredo have discovered groups of 145, 124, 110 and 95 undocumented immigrants in sealed semitrailers this year amid a proliferation of illicit transports.
David McKeon, 67, of Laredo, was approached at his birthday party in April by people who knew he had an expired commercial driver’s license. He told investigators they pressured him into accepting the job. At 11 p.m. on April 20, he pulled into the checkpoint and handed agents his shipping manifest.
They went to the back of his trailer to compare its seal to his manifest and heard noises coming from inside. They opened a vent door and discovered 124 people, all in the country without papers.
McKeon told a Homeland Security Investigations agent he had been instructed to haul the trailer to San Antonio, drop it off, then follow a vehicle to a hotel to receive payment of a few thousand dollars, according to court records.
The country’s busiest land port, with thousands of trucks streaming in and out on Interstate 35 every day, Laredo is the epicenter of a multibillion-dollar migrant smuggling industry, where coyotes bring people they have led across the Rio Grande to stash houses before their associates load groups of them onto trailers tucked away in the city’s warehouse district.
Laredo, population 260,000, is a shipping hub due to its location, said Raúl Casso, a former Laredo federal prosecutor and city attorney.
“The thing about Laredo, unlike El Paso, I mean you cross into El Paso and you’re in the desert. You’re in the middle of nowhere. Laredo you’re on I-35. It’s a big thoroughfare. And just up the highway, 150 miles, is San Antonio, which is a huge population base. … You go further down river, like Brownsville, that’s big. But you cross into Brownsville, you’re in South Texas and you are miles away from where the action is. Laredo, you’re right on I-35," he said.
Though Border Patrol agents use X-ray machines and dogs to sniff out stashed drugs and migrants at Laredo’s four ports of entry with inspection facilities, and another checkpoint 30 miles north of town, they only inspect a small percentage of all vehicles.
For smugglers, it’s a numbers game, said Casso: “They’re going to blitz through, and nine out of 10 cases are going to make it. Just because there’s not enough people, you just can’t catch them all. There’s too many.”
Homero Zamorano, 46, made it past the Border Patrol’s Laredo North checkpoint on June 27 hauling a trailer with registration numbers matching those used by a legitimate trucking company.
A few hours later, after he stopped the truck on a rural road in southwest San Antonio, 911 calls led to the discovery of the bodies of 46 migrants who had overheated in the trailer, which had no working air conditioning. Another seven died at the hospital.
Police found Zamorano, reportedly high on meth, hiding in nearby bushes. In custody and facing a possible sentence of life in federal prison, he said he did not know the air conditioning had gone out.
Three other men have been indicted in connection with the tragedy.
Immigrant advocates were quick to blame Title 42, a Trump-era policy with the stated aim of preventing the spread of Covid-19, by which millions of migrants have been promptly expelled from the country and not allowed to apply for asylum.
President Joe Biden tried to end the policy but was ordered to keep it in place after 24 red states sued to block the move.