A federal grand jury indicted two men on Wednesday in connection with a human smuggling operation that left 50 adults and three children dead in and around an abandoned tractor-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio last month, officials said.
It was one of the deadliest incidents in recent history involving migrants along the southern border of the United States.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 46, of Pasadena, Texas, and Christian Martinez, 28, of Palestine, Texas, were indicted on counts of conspiracy to transport and transportation of migrants illegally resulting in death, and of conspiracy to transport and transportation of migrants illegally resulting in serious injury, said the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, in San Antonio.
Mr. Zamorano and Mr. Martinez could be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty if convicted on the charges of conspiracy to transport and transportation resulting in death. They each face up to 20 years in prison for the charges of transportation resulting in injury. Attorney General Merrick Garland will decide whether to pursue the death penalty before the trial.
Mr. Martinez and Mr. Zamorano are in federal custody pending trial. Lawyers for Mr. Martinez declined to comment, and lawyers for Mr. Zamorano did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 53 men, women and children were found dead on June 27 after San Antonio police officers received 911 calls from people concerned about the abandoned tractor-trailer.
Temperatures topped 100 degrees that day, and the truck did not have a functioning cooling system. People were found dead inside the truck, on the ground and in nearby brush, the U.S. attorney said. Ten adults and one child were injured.
Roberto Quintero, who came upon the truck and called 911, told The New York Times last month that a young girl nearby asked him for help.
“I didn’t get her name or think to ask where she came from,” Mr. Quintero said. “She just kept hanging on my arms, screaming, ‘Help me, help me,’ in Spanish.”
Officials said the dead and injured were migrants from countries including Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Violence, economic and political upheaval and climate change have driven Central American migration to the southern U.S. border.
The San Antonio police said last month that they had arrested a man identified as the driver, Mr. Zamorano. Officers found him hiding in the brush after he tried to run away, the U.S. attorney said. Authorities then searched his cellphone and found “communications” with Mr. Martinez about the human smuggling.
In surveillance footage obtained by the Homeland Security Department, Mr. Zamorano was seen wearing the same clothing as that of the driver of the tractor-trailer when it crossed a federal immigration checkpoint, the U.S. attorney said. The truck was not inspected at the checkpoint.
Two Mexican nationals, whom the police saw leave the San Antonio residence where the tractor-trailer was registered, were also indicted on Wednesday on one count each of possession of a firearm while unlawfully present in the United States, the U.S. attorney in San Antonio said.
The two men, Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, have been in federal custody since they were arrested on June 27. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison.