SAN ANTONIO — In one truck, the migrants crouched in the dark in a three-foot crevice between the trailer’s ceiling and the top of medical-supply boxes. In another, smugglers crammed 73 men, women and children into a trailer filled with rotting watermelons, to try to disguise their scent for Border Patrol dogs.
Sometimes, the trailers are comfortable, or as comfortable as a human-cargo operation can be, with water, ventilation and even refrigeration to keep everyone cool. But just as often, especially in the South Texas heat, they can become inhumane.
One group of trapped migrants cut their hands trying to rip insulation from a trailer’s door to try to get some air and left bloody handprints. Others drank their own urine when their water supply went out.
Luciano Alcocer, 56, still vividly recalls his 12-hour trip from Chaparral, N.M., to Dallas packed into an unventilated trailer in 2002. Two immigrants died, and Mr. Alcocer thought he would, too.
“I thought my final moment had arrived,” he said. “We were desperate. We were like chickens spinning on a rotisserie.”
Last Sunday, a thirsty immigrant’s request for water at a Walmart in San Antonio led to the discovery, in the parking lot, of the deadliest truck-smuggling operation in the United States in more than a decade. Ten of the 39 people found in or near the truck died, and others were hospitalized, some with brain damage.
The case has cast a harsh light on a practice known for its cruelty. But it also showed that the big rig rolls on as a highly organized, often effective and remarkably enduring transportation option for the smuggling underworld.
Hundreds of migrants every year are caught inside tractor-trailers, and hundreds more are believed to be cruising in undetected. Even though President Trump’s tough stance on illegal immigration has slowed the flow of border crossers, many are still trying to slip past the Border Patrol in the back of eighteen-wheelers. In late June, for example, a Homeland Security task force found 21 people in the back of another tractor-trailer in Laredo, leading to the prosecution of four suspected smugglers.
“It has been going on certainly throughout the entire 30 years that I’ve been doing this,” said the director of the task force, Paul A. Beeson, a veteran Border Patrol agent. “They use every method of conveyance that they can come up with.”
Court records, news reports and interviews with officials, border experts and migrants who have survived the trip illustrated both the lure of the truck and its dangers.
In South Texas, the busiest border for illegal entry and a mostly unfenced one, crossing the Rio Grande is in many ways the easy part. The hardest is getting past the 100-mile-wide zone where Border Patrol traffic checkpoints function as a last line of defense before migrants reach San Antonio, Houston and cities beyond.
Undocumented immigrants and the people who profit off smuggling them must decide whether to go around the checkpoints on foot, or go through them in a vehicle.
Those who circumvent the checkpoints on foot often do not make it out alive, dying from dehydration or heat stroke. For decades, particularly in hot Texas summers, going through the checkpoints in the trailers of eighteen-wheelers has appealed as a far less perilous option.
“It’s considered V.I.P., considered safer, faster and therefore more expensive,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on border issues and a fellow at the Wilson Center, a research institute in Washington. “With stronger border enforcement measures, people don’t want to be visible.”
Mr. Alcocer’s truck trip in 2002 cost $2,500. According to the criminal smuggling complaint against the driver of the San Antonio truck, James M. Bradley Jr., one of the migrants told investigators that he was to pay his smugglers $5,500 once he reached San Antonio safely.
Far more people are smuggled in cars. In the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, nearly 2,000 migrants have been caught in cars, compared with about 225 in commercial trucks, according to the Border Patrol. (In the previous fiscal year, those numbers were 3,400 and 369, respectively.)
But trucks provide several advantages over cars for smugglers and migrants.
One is bulk. One eighteen-wheeler trip is often the work not of a single smuggler but of several working together, who load four, five or six groups of 20 or so migrants into a trailer. In the San Antonio case, one immigrant believed that up to 200 people had been inside at one point. They had been handed tape with different colors so their handlers could keep track of which groups went with which smugglers at the drop-off point.
“Usually if you’re in those big vehicles, it’s trying to coordinate large groups and move people around,” said Jeremy Slack, a migration expert and professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Another benefit is evasion. So many trucks in the Southwest are moving goods to and from Mexico that the Border Patrol cannot possibly check all of them. To minimize the risk of inspection, smugglers will try tactics like the rotting watermelons, which did not work. If a truck is refrigerated, the driver will often turn the cooling system off before reaching the checkpoint so that inspectors will not get suspicious when the driver claims the truck is empty.
Once past the checkpoints, the trucks are bound for major cities, such as Houston and San Antonio, that have become hubs for human and drug smuggling. At the drop-off points, the migrants are put into smaller vehicles for the next leg of their journey.
But the ad hoc smuggling system is fraught with delays and faulty equipment, as well as misjudgments about how long people can survive packed into often-unrefrigerated metal boxes in the Texas heat.
In one case in 2003, when 19 immigrants died in an overheated tractor-trailer near Victoria, Tex., a simple part of the plan went awry. The driver was supposed to drop off the immigrants at a town about 45 miles north of the Border Patrol checkpoint. But the smugglers who were supposed to unload the immigrants there were detained at the checkpoint, and the driver was told to instead drive to Houston, more than 200 miles from the original drop-off point. The milk trailer’s cooling unit was never turned on, although some migrants were told that it would be.
“One of the really horrifying things back in the Victoria case was people had been told to bring sweaters, because it was going to be cold in the back of the truck,” said David Spener, the author of “Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border” and a professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in San Antonio.
Mr. Bradley, 60, who has been charged with one count of transporting illegal immigrants, told investigators that he had known that the truck’s refrigeration system didn’t work and that the vents were probably clogged, according to the criminal complaint. He said he had been unaware the immigrants were on board.
Both the San Antonio and Victoria cases involved non-Hispanic drivers from outside Texas. Smugglers, many of whom have ties to Mexican drug cartels, frequently recruit non-Hispanics with out-of-state plates because they believe those drivers are less likely to raise suspicions as they pass through traffic checkpoints.
Mr. Bradley is African-American, lived in Florida and was driving a truck with Iowa plates. The driver in the Victoria episode, Tyrone M. Williams, is a Jamaican national, lived in upstate New York and had New York plates. He is now in federal prison.
For the drivers, the risks are tremendous, but the rewards can be relatively meager. In the Victoria case, Mr. Williams made two transports of migrants in May 2003. For the first one, he drove 60 immigrants and was paid $6,500, and for the second and deadly trip, he was paid $7,500 for transporting 74 migrants.
Many of those who survive the trips remain physically scarred, and emotionally haunted. Immigrants who have been smuggled in this way have undergone monthslong hospitalizations and talk years later about having trouble concentrating and riding in vehicles.
Fifteen years after his ordeal, Mr. Alcocer said he still wakes up sweating from nightmares. As he rode in the trailer with about 45 other migrants, some hallucinated, fainted or vomited. They tried in vain to tear holes in the metal walls with a pair of barber scissors belonging to a migrant who was a hairstylist from Argentina. They were given six gallons of water, but they ran out early, so they urinated in the empty water bottles, he said.
“The first time the urine-filled gallons came to me, I was disgusted,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. But eventually I had no choice. Perhaps it saved my life.”
Mr. Alcocer eventually woke up disoriented in a hospital room, where he was treated for hyperthermia. He received a visa in return for his testimony against the smugglers, two of whom were sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. Mr. Alcocer is now a permanent resident and lives near Houston.
Another memory he has from the ride is that he was promised the trailer would have a cooling system. The judge in the case pointed out that as the immigrants suffered, the two smugglers in the cab had the air-conditioning on.