«Trailers have always been used, but not as much as now,» Tubbs said.

Balli believes there are fewer Texan drivers willing to do this kind of work now, as a result of an aggressive deterrence campaign by authorities who warned truckers they could lose their expensive and difficult-to-obtain business licenses if they they are condemned. to transport immigrants illegally.

But the smugglers take advantage of the economic situation of the drivers. In December 2021, Crispín de la Rosa, a driver who was stopped in Sarita, Texas, with 24 migrants in a trailer that was also carrying watermelons, told agents that he agreed to drive the truck to Houston for $600 because he had been unemployed for months old and needed to help his elderly mother, according to court documents.

Smugglers typically look for American drivers or drivers with green cards who are licensed to drive commercial vehicles, assuming this will make it easier for them to get through highway checkpoints, according to Balli. They are often recruited at truck stops. However, given the shortage of willing drivers, they have also turned to foreign drivers, including some without licenses or with suspended licenses or who don’t even know how to drive trucks.

Most drivers who are arrested are making the smuggling trip for the first time, Balli said. “I think it’s not easy to do. … They get into this kind of trouble and lose everything. They lose their family, their home, they suffer many consequences for this. And if they are lucky, there are no injuries or deaths.»

A group of migrants was found inside a tractor-trailer during a failed human smuggling attempt north of Laredo, Texas on July 13, 2020.

According to Estrada, smugglers sometimes load several trucks with migrants in the hope that if one is stopped at a checkpoint, the agents will divert their attention so the other two can pass. “Usually they load one as bait,” he said.

Most of the trucks are intercepted by border agents or local police at night. For the most part (42% of the time), trained dogs sniff people inside trailers, although smugglers sometimes use scent-confusing tactics. In the case of the 53 migrants who died in San Antonio last year, police reported that they used meat seasoning on their skin to hide their scent.

The Border Patrol inspection post on Interstate 35 north of Laredo has six main inspection lanes, but only three for large trucks. Lack of space causes long lines and in recent months has led Border Patrol to make sporadic closures to expedite trafficallowing vehicles to move freely without being controlled.

Border Patrol did not respond to questions about quick inspections it is conducting to ease long lines of vehicles on I-35.

The van in which the 53 migrants suffocated a year ago avoided that control and went unnoticed.

The same thing happened with a truck. in which 10 people who were being smuggled died in San Antonio in 2017. Manuel Martínez Esparza, one of the survivors of that tragedy, told Telemundo Noticias that all the migrants were awake when they passed the I-35 checkpoint, but the agents did not search the interior of the trailer. Soon after, conditions got really bad.

Manuel Martínez, seen here in Zacatecas, Mexico, where he currently lives, was in a coma but survived a 2017 trip in a tractor-trailer in Texas that killed 10 people, including his brother Ricardo.  Credit, Damià Bonmatí, Telemundo News.
Manuel Martínez Esparza, seen here in Zacatecas, Mexico, where he currently lives, ended up in a coma but survived a 2017 trip in a tractor-trailer in Texas that killed 10 people, including his brother Ricardo.Damià Bonmatí / Telemundo News

“They began to faint, people were yelling that it was better that they open us up and that the migra catch us, that they take us out of the truck, that they open the door for us,” Martínez said by telephone. She called from Zacatecas, Mexico, where she lives. “A person was going with a knife hitting the truck to make a hole. The people shouted that their relatives had fainted, the women were crying for their fainted children”.

The van was left in a Walmart parking lot, where an employee discovered them. Martinez was in a coma and woke up in the hospital weeks later. His brother Ricardo died in the suffocating trailer.

When all 53 people died in San Antonio last year, Martinez began to «relive» the similar incident that resulted in the death of her brother. “It is something very sad, very ugly. That’s something you always keep in mind.»

pushing for changes

In an April 2018 Congressional hearing, Kevin McAleenan, then Customs and Border Protection commissioner under President Donald Trump, acknowledged the need to improve conditions at the I-35 checkpoint.

However, until June of last year, when the 53 migrants died in San Antonio, the modernization of the border post was still pending.

The Biden administration recently pledged funds to expand the checkpoint, $165 million of the project’s total budget. But it’s unclear when the expansion might be ready, according to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose congressional district includes Laredo.

Following the death of the 53 people in the San Antonio truck, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced the creation of new checkpoints on the highways of Texas. These random checks are sometimes effective in detecting trucks that have bypassed checkpoints. On January 11, 2022, a Texas patrol car parked on the side of I-35, one mile north of the inspection booth, They discovered 28 migrants during a traffic stop.

Strengthening the I-35 inspection point is one of the main points in the fight against human traffickers, but it is far from being the definitive solution to the problem, which may not have one, according to the authorities and experts consulted.

Balli believes that there will always be drivers willing to drive a crowded truck, even as prison sentences increase. “There will always be someone who is more desperate, who needs more money,” she said.

“If we are looking for a magical solution, in my opinion, there isn’t one,” Cuéllar said. He proposes a series of measures that range from expanding inspection points and investing in technology – he spoke of machines that detect the heartbeat of a person hidden in a truck – to sending more agents onto the roads and strengthening police intelligence work.

Former Laredo Mayor Pete Sáenz said comprehensive immigration reform would help. “We know that we need workers, especially in the area of ​​agriculture; the ideal would be laws that allow people to pass legally,” he said. «Both sides have had plenty of chances, but it hasn’t been done.»

In the meantime, fast money will continue to tempt drivers.

“I got used to the double life, one feels the need to earn more money,” Juan said from prison.

As for John, he said his wife forgave him after his conviction, but regrets taking the job as a smuggler because prison time is a «stigma» that will carry over for the rest of his life.

“I look in the mirror and I can’t look myself in the eye,” he said, calling himself ace—-. «Everybody thinks you’re a bully.»

An earlier version of this story was originally published on Noticias Telemundo.