The 53 migrants who died in Texas didn't likely cross the border in a truck The trapped people were found after a worker heard someone crying for help. Two experts — one a former Homeland Security Investigations agent — tell NPR how it happened.

No, the 53 migrants who died in Texas didn't likely cross the border in that truck

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Investigators are working to find out why at least 51 migrants died in the back of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio this week. The tragedy is a stark reminder of the dangers that migrants face as law enforcement and smugglers use increasingly sophisticated methods to try and outwit each other. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The federal agency leading the inquiry is Homeland Security Investigations. It's looking into how dozens of migrants came to be trapped in the back of a tractor-trailer on Monday. And sadly, the HSI office in San Antonio has plenty of experience with similar incidents.

JERRY ROBINETTE: It was obviously shocking from a standpoint of numbers and the deaths that were involved. But at the same time, it's not surprising.

ROSE: Not surprising to Jerry Robinette. He's a former special agent in charge of the San Antonio office of HSI, which is part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The most recent incident came in 2017, when 10 migrants died after being left in an unventilated trailer in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio. Robinette says there were other incidents before that, and the tractor-trailers play a big role in human smuggling.

ROBINETTE: I can assure you it happens more than we realize. You know, more get by than we catch. So I can only imagine just how pervasive the practice is.

ROSE: So far, officials have not said where this truck originated or where it was going. But Robinette and other experts have their theories. They say desperate migrants from all over Central America and beyond pay big money to get into the U.S. And human smugglers have built an extensive operation with San Antonio as a key hub.

ROGER ENRIQUEZ: This is a very sophisticated operation that entails vast networks into Mexico, Central America.

ROSE: Roger Enriquez is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Every day, thousands of trucks carry all kinds of goods through the port of Laredo, up Interstate 35 to San Antonio and, from there, on to the rest of the U.S. Enriquez says that makes it an attractive route for smugglers, too, because they can blend right in.

ENRIQUEZ: It is an important corridor for goods and unfortunately also for smuggling and the trafficking of persons.

ROSE: This is the part where smugglers and law enforcement try to outwit each other. U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses X-ray scanners at the ports of entry. The smugglers know they can't load their human cargo into a tractor-trailer in Mexico. So Enriquez says they sneak the migrants across the border instead.

ENRIQUEZ: They may very well cross on foot over the border, have a rendezvous point somewhere into the United States, and then simply load the truck there.

ROSE: From there, the migrants are driven north, often in a tractor-trailer, to San Antonio, where they might continue their journey in smaller vehicles. But in this case, something went very wrong. Jerry Robinette, the former HSI agent, says unfortunately that is typical, too.

ROBINETTE: At the end of the day, the smugglers place very little value or care, especially when things go wrong. They're going to be very quick to save their own hide.

ROSE: For migrants who rely on human smugglers, the risk can be magnified even more by extreme heat. The San Antonio area has seen temperatures topping a hundred degrees this month. That kind of heat leaves little margin for error, says Roger Enriquez.

ENRIQUEZ: Any mistakes are essentially a death sentence to folks because, you know, someone doesn't show up on time to pick up a load and the AC goes out or the refrigeration unit goes out, you're putting folks in a tremendous amount of peril.

ROSE: The president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, offered condolences to the migrants' families and promised that migration would be on the agenda when he meets next month with President Biden in Washington. But in the short run, that meeting will do little to stop human smugglers or make their services any safer.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

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