A Texas man pleaded guilty to federal charges on Wednesday for his role in a human-smuggling attempt in which 53 people died last year, amid a growing border crisis, after they were picked up in a border town and were left in a sweltering tractor-trailer near San Antonio, prosecutors said.
The smuggling attempt has been described by officials as one of the deadliest cases in recent years involving migrants along the southern border of the United States.
Christian Martinez, 29, of Palestine, Texas, pleaded guilty to four counts related to transporting unauthorized immigrants and those actions resulting in death or injury, as he appeared before Judge Richard B. Farrer in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Martinez, one of six men being charged in the case, faces up to life in prison, and he is scheduled to be sentenced in January. David Shearer, a lawyer for Mr. Martinez, declined to comment on Thursday.
The deadly smuggling attempt came as border crossings into the United States continued to approach record levels as thousands of people from Latin America and other regions have left their countries, in many cases fleeing from violence or poverty. The surge in migrants has left state and local leaders from El Paso to New York City scrambling to figure out a response.
Federal prosecutors said in a statement that Mr. Martinez drove Homero Zamorano Jr., 47, to San Antonio to pick up the tractor-trailer. Mr. Zamorano then drove the vehicle to the border city of Laredo, where Mr. Zamorano loaded the migrants into the trailer, they said.
There were at least 66 people in the trailer, including eight children and one pregnant woman, according to the prosecutors, who declined to comment on the case on Thursday.
As Mr. Zamorano drove the migrants north, Mr. Martinez coordinated and facilitated the trailer’s passage through a series of messages with four other men, prosecutors said.
The trailer was found abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio on June 27, 2022, after the police received 911 calls expressing concerns about the cargo vehicle. Temperatures had risen above 100 degrees on that day, and officials later learned that the vehicle did not have functioning air-conditioning.
“As the temperature inside the trailer rose, chaos ensued,” the indictment said. Some of the people in the trailer “screamed and banged on the walls for help. Some passed out, unconscious. Others clawed at the sides of the trailer attempting to escape.”
When the authorities reached the location of the tractor-trailer, 48 people were already dead or dying from the heat, including a woman who was pregnant, according to the indictment. Sixteen people were taken to hospitals, and five of them later died, the indictment said.
Of the 53 people who died, 27 were from Mexico, 20 were from Guatemala, and six from Honduras, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Zamorano had fled from the trailer on foot, but he was later found hiding in nearby brush by law enforcement officers.
To be smuggled into the United States, the migrants paid up to $15,000, a fee that included at least three attempts, in case they were caught by U.S. law enforcement near the border and were deported, according to the indictment.
Mr. Martinez and Mr. Zamorano were indicted by a federal grand jury in July 2022. Four other men were charged in the case in June.
Mr. Zamorano pleaded not guilty in July to four counts of charges related to transporting undocumented immigrants resulting in death or injury, according to court records.
Lawyers for Mr. Zamorano did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday. A trial for Mr. Zamorano has been scheduled for December.
Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, 30, Felipe Orduna-Torres, 29, Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, 38, and Armando Gonzales-Ortega, 54, are also awaiting trial for charges in the case, according to court records.