The bodies of 46 migrants were found in a container truck Monday in San Antonio, Texas, city officials said.
The discovery was one of the deadliest people-smuggling incidents recently along the US-Mexico border.
A San Antonio Fire Department official said his team found “a pile of bodies” and no warning signs on the truck, which was found next to a railroad track in a remote area on the city’s southern outskirts.
Sixteen other people found in the trailer were taken to hospital with high temperatures and exhaustion, including four minors, but no children were among the dead, the department said.
“The patients we saw were hot to the touch, they were suffering from heat stroke, exhaustion,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told a news conference. “It was a refrigerated container truck but there was no working AC unit in the container room.”
Temperatures in San Antonio, which is about 160 miles (250 km) from the Mexican border, rose to as low as 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius) on Monday with high humidity.
City Police Chief William McManus said someone working in a nearby building heard the cries for help and came out to investigate. Workers found the container door partially open and looked inside and found a number of bodies.
McManus said this was the largest incident for the ward in the city and three people were detained after the incident, although their involvement was not clear. A spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the Homeland Security Investigations division was working closely with police to investigate “suspected smuggling.”
The deaths once again highlight the challenges of controlling migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border, which have reached record highs.
The issue is proving difficult for US President Joe Biden, a Democrat who takes office in January 2021, who has vowed to reverse some of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Republicans have criticized Biden’s border strategy ahead of midterm congressional elections in November.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard called on Twitter the deaths of the migrants in the truck a “tragedy in Texas” and said consular officials would go to the hospital where the victims were taken to help “wherever possible.”
A Honduran foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters the country’s consulates in Houston and Dallas would investigate the incident.
Ebrard said two Guatemalans were hospitalized and Guatemala’s foreign ministry said on Twitter that consular officials went to the hospital “to verify if there are two Guatemalan minors there and in what condition they are.”
The I-35 motorway near where the truck was found runs through San Antonio from the Mexican border and is a popular smuggling corridor due to the large volume of truck traffic, according to Jack Staton, a former senior official with ICE’s investigative unit who retired in December.
In July 2017, 10 migrants died after being transported in a container truck found by San Antonio police in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The driver, James Matthew Bradley, Jr., was sentenced the following year to life in prison for his role in a smuggling operation.
Staton said migrants had been regularly intercepted in the region since the 2017 incident. “It’s only a matter of time before a tragedy like this will happen again,” he said.