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51 immigrants are dead in the worst known human smuggling catastrophe in modern U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Federal authorities are investigating the deaths of more than 50 people on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. Most of the bodies were found in the oven-like trailer of an abandoned 18-wheeler truck. At least six people, including teenagers, were taken to local hospitals. It is the worst-known human smuggling catastrophe in modern U.S. history. NPR's John Burnett is covering this story from San Antonio. Hi, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What more can you tell us about who these people were?

BURNETT: Texas has been suffering through this record heat wave this month, and it's horrible to think of 60 people at least trapped inside of a metal box under the scorching sun, a hundred degrees-plus without water or cooling. We know that 22 of the dead are Mexican nationals, seven are Guatemalans, two are Hondurans, and the rest are still being identified. Police said they died from heat stroke and suffocation. It was a nearby worker who discovered the truck abandoned on a remote road in the southwest side of San Antonio. It's located between railroad tracks and a cluster of auto junkyards. But it's less than a mile from Interstate 35, which is the nation's biggest commercial highway leading up from the Mexican border. I mean, you just think of the tremendous number of those big rigs. The Border Patrol can't search every one of them. The Homeland Security Department has not had anything to say about its investigation yet. But here's Jerry Robinette. He's former head of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.

JERRY ROBINETTE: Highway 35 is a major corridor. When you look at the volume of commercial truck traffic that comes out of Laredo, I mean, it is literally a needle in a haystack. It's a miracle that they come across what they do come across.

BURNETT: Federal investigators have three people in custody who may be tied to the smuggling case.

SHAPIRO: Although this may be worse than any such previous case that we know of, we have seen incidents like this before where people die in the process of trying to cross into the U.S. Tell us about the precedence here.

BURNETT: Right. There's a lot of them. In July 2017, authorities discovered a tractor-trailer parked at a Walmart again in San Antonio. Ten died in that incident, and the driver was sentenced to life in prison. And in May 2003, 19 migrants perished inside of a tractor-trailer near Victoria, Texas, which was between the border and Houston.

SHAPIRO: Anything more that is known about the truck that was used to smuggle these people?

BURNETT: Well, the cab was a bright red Volvo. And it seems that the coyote, the human smuggler, in order to legitimize the truck, cloned the registration numbers from - for the Texas Department of Transportation. Here's Felipe Betancourt, one of the owners of the trucking company in the Rio Grande Valley that hauls fruits and vegetables. He said one of their trucks had its vehicle numbers ripped off and put on the smuggling truck.

FELIPE BETANCOURT: I mean, you can't believe it. I mean, it's really bad, you know, what's going on and especially, I mean, all those people. I mean, we're still in shock right now.

SHAPIRO: What's been the official response from Mexico and the U.S.?

BURNETT: Well, Mexico, for one, is upset. Here is President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a press conference this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: The Mexican president says that the horrific incident was a product of the poverty and desperation of our Central American brothers and of Mexicans. He went on to say, it happens because there's trafficking of people and a lack of control at the border and in the U.S. interior. And President Biden has come under fire from Republicans for not doing more to stop the influx at the border. Biden said today this incident underscores the need to go after the multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling industry that preys on migrants and leads to many innocent deaths.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's John Burnett in San Antonio, Texas. Thank you.

BURNETT: Sure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.