Early in the morning on Sunday, July 23, police discovered a gruesome scene at a San Antonio Wal-Mart parking lot: a truck packed full of dead immigrants, and many more with brain damage from the sweltering Texas heat.
So far, 10 people have died in the tragedy, a horrific human trafficking operation gone awry. This marks one of the nation’s deadliest human trafficking incidents to date. Now, the survivors are telling their stories.
According to Adan Lara Vega, one of the migrants who survived the truck ride, and CBS News, more than a hundred people were packed inside the pitch-black truck with neither food nor water.
The migrants had been promised that despite the crowding, the truck’s temperature would be maintained by the trailer’s cooling system. This turned out to be false; the refrigerated trucks air conditioning wasn’t working. As the temperature outside surpassed 100 degrees, many of the passengers succumbed to dehydration, suffocation, and heat stroke.
The New York Times reports that the driver told federal investigators that the cooling system on the truck was broken and that its vent holes had likely been clogged. The result was dozens or more immigrants sharing a single opening in the side of the truck, taking turns gasping for fresh air.
The experience was one of a dream turning into a nightmare for those inside. According to court papers, one survivor detailed his journey across the Rio Grande and how he paid $700 to a Mexican drug cartel for protection.
Charges have been filed against the driver, 60 year old James Matthew Bradley Jr. of Clearwater, Florida, for illegally transporting immigrants for financial gain, resulting in death. If convicted, Bradley faces an unlimited prison sentence and even the possibility of the death sentence.
Investigators, however, face challenges finding witnesses of the crime. Despite dozens still being hospitalized, more migrants fled into woods when police arrived on the scene. Federal authorities have mounted a manhunt for any of the missing victims, stating that they wish to provide aid and build their legal case against the driver.
According to NBC News, the survivors will be questioned by ICE after their treatment is completed.
While some might be surprised to see migrants taking such extreme risk in order to cross into the United States, those who are familiar with immigration and trafficking, like Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services executive director Jonathan Ryan, are unsurprised.
“You can change laws. You can change policies,” he said to NBC News. “But you cannot change the fact that people fleeing violence, people seeking to save and protect their families, are going to do whatever they can to flee that danger and find safety.”