• Thu. Aug 11th, 2022

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Two Mexican citizens charged with weapons possession after Texas big rig deaths

Two men detained following Monday’s discovery of dozens of dead migrants in the trailer of a big rig in San Antonio have been charged with possessing a weapon while in the United States illegally.

Criminal complaints filed separately in San Antonio federal court Tuesday charge Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez with “possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the United States.”

Neither man faces formal allegations that they are connected to smuggling, the deaths of the 53 migrants in the big rig or injury to at least a dozen others.

A third person taken into custody is the driver of the big rig, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told The Associated Press. It was not immediately clear whether he has been charged.

D’Luna-Bilbao and D’Luna-Mendez, both Mexican citizens who said they had overstayed their visas, were taken into custody Monday night. San Antonio police staked out an address in the Dellview community of San Antonio that was on record for the big rig and conducted separate traffic stops on the two men, the criminal complaint states.

A search of the residence turned up multiple firearms in the bedrooms of both D’Luna-Bilbao and D’Luna-Mendez, the documents state.

D’Luna-Bilbao also had a gun in the center console of the truck, the criminal complaint said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if they had legal representation. The federal public defender for the area did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an interview Tuesday, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called those taken into custody “persons of interest” pending more evidence and investigation.

Most of the victims were dead by the time first responders arrived at the big rig, which was apparently abandoned in an undeveloped area of southwest San Antonio near railroad tracks.

The confirmed death toll increased Wednesday to 53 after two more people died at a hospital late Tuesday, according to a Bexar County spokesperson.

“The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office has taken custody of the remains of all victims who died in the tractor-trailer found on Quintana Road in San Antonio,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Forty of the victims are male and 13 are female, according to the statement.

“While verification through consular channels is pending, 37 of the victims have potential identifications,” the county spokesperson said. “The BCMEO is currently coordinating with the consulates of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.” 

Eleven people remained in hospitals Wednesday, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. At least two of them were in critical condition, including one at Baptist Medical Center and “an adolescent male” at University Health San Antonio.

Temperatures in the region exceeded 100 degrees Monday. The survivors in the truck had no water or air conditioning and were suffering from heat stroke and heat exhaustion, San Antonio Police Chief William P. McManus said Tuesday.

John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association, said federal investigators will likely find that the victims walked across the Mexico border and were picked up on the U.S. side. A plurality of the dead and injured were migrants from Mexico, officials said.

“It’s very common that these trucks are picking up on the U.S. side but within 20 or 30 miles of the border, so you have a lot of people that are walking across the border and they’re meeting at a rendezvous point to be effectively loaded up and taken farther into Texas,” he said.

Most commercial vehicles passing the border face three levels of inspections from law enforcement and border agents consisting of X-ray scanners, devices that check temperature differences in tires, trailer imaging and other technology, Esparza said.

“That lends me to believe that it’s less likely that they were all packed inside of a truck and made it through the crossing,” he said.

Cuellar, the Texas representative, told the AP the truck had passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo, Texas, on Interstate 35, before it was apparently abandoned, but it wasn’t clear if the victims were in the trailer at that time.

Ashley C. Hoff, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in a statement Tuesday that her federal prosecutors are determined to do their part to realize justice for the families of the dead.

“We will continue to work with the Homeland Security Investigations and the local responders to identify and bring those who were responsible for this tragedy to justice,” she said.

Anthony Cusumano and Deon J. Hampton contributed.