‘They had their dreams’: Families devastated by Texas truck deaths | American immigration

BBefore leaving Veracruz, Pablo Ortega asked his sister Rosa to do two things: take care of his pregnant wife and, if anything happened to her on the way to the United States, make sure her body was brought back. home so he could be transported through the streets where he grew up. This week, Rosa found herself having to fulfill both duties to her little brother.

At 6:20 p.m. on June 27, an abandoned trailer was discovered on a lonely side road in San Antonio, Texas. Inside were the bodies of dozens of people who died trying to migrate from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Among them was Pablo, 20, whose body was found alongside that of his 43-year-old uncle, Jesús Álvarez. A total of 53 people died and more than a dozen were taken to hospital, including four children. Four people have been charged.

The disaster, which is considered the deadliest smuggling episode on the US-Mexico border, highlighted the terrible human cost of border crossings.

Rosa shows the latest WhatsApp messages she received from her brother Pablo. Photography: Felix Marquez

“When he got into the trailer, I told him to stay close to the doors so he wouldn’t get run over,” Rosa said as she began preparing for the funeral and making sure that, as instructed by Pablo, a song called The ultimate caravan was played during the procession in their hometown of Tlapacoyan.

Although they hadn’t heard from Pablo in days, the family had not given up hope that he had reached the United States safely.

“We knew we couldn’t contact him because they took everyone’s phones and belongings when they entered the trailer,” Rosa said. When the family finally joined the men carrying the migrants, they said Pablo could not speak for “security reasons”. Then they stopped answering the phone.

Pablo earned his living as a mechanic and selling cotton candy at fairs. He turned 20 on his trip north and, in the absence of cake, celebrated with bread and mayonnaise.

He and his uncle, who had been expelled from the United States under Donald Trump, were keen to cross the border. “Pablo was only going to be gone for three years,” Rosa said. “He wanted to save money to buy a house and start a tattoo business.”

The two men left on May 29. On their third attempt, they managed to cross the Río Bravo in a small boat and encountered the “coyotes,” or smugglers. The next seven days were spent in a safe house in Laredo, Texas, from where Pablo phoned his sister to tell her that he had heard the coyotes negotiating with U.S. border agents: “He said they were asking $3,000 per person to leave the truck through.”

Human trafficking is a lucrative business. According to a 2019 report by the Department of Homeland Security, in 2017 alone, smugglers earned between $200 million and $2.3 billion bringing people to the United States from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In a National Money Laundering Risk Assessment released in March this year, the US Treasury noted that “corrupt government officials also enable human traffickers”.

Relatives react as the bodies of Jair Valencia, Misael Olivares and Yovani Valencia arrive at their family home in San Marcos Atexquilapan, state of Veracruz, Mexico, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.
The bodies of Jair Valencia, Misael Olivares and Yovani Valencia arrive at their family home in San Marcos Atexquilapan. Photography: Felix Marquez/The Guardian

Eduardo González, a migration expert and analyst of US-Mexico relations, said collusion between trafficking gangs and Mexican and US authorities was evident.

“These events show that the authorities are clearly involved in human trafficking,” he said. “Otherwise, how can a truck carrying 50 people be able to travel on federal highways without being detected? It’s practically impossible. Some in the United States also profit from this activity and the money is found at all levels.

Just over 60 miles (100 km) from Tlapacoyan is the small town of Naolinco, where for more than two weeks candles burned and prayers were said for the eternal rest of 16-year-old Misael. Jair, who was 19, and Yovani, 16.

The three parents – all cobblers and football fans – left Naolinco on June 21, heading to Austin, Texas, where a family member was to meet them. They had made the decision to leave two weeks earlier, contacted a coyote, paid $8,200, and promised each other to go to the United States together and return to Veracruz together in four years.

In the end, they came back much earlier than expected. Their bodies were repatriated by a military flight which landed on Wednesday.

Framed photos of Jair, Misael and Yovani Valencia are displayed on an altar during a funeral wake in San Marcos Atexquilapan, Veracruz.
Framed photos of Jair, Misael and Yovani Valencia are displayed on an altar. Photography: Felix Marquez/AP

Their grandfather Balbino Olivares can’t help tormenting himself thinking about the last moments of his grandsons; heat in the caravan, thirst, lack of air and despair.

“We didn’t know how they planned to travel,” said Teófilo Valencia, Jair and Yovani’s father. “They were happy because they had crossed over and were getting closer to Austin.”

As González points out, tougher anti-immigrant laws force people to find “more dangerous and expensive ways to get to the United States.” But for many, the potential benefits outweigh these risks.

A group of people pray in front of a memorial dedicated to Jair, Yovani and Misael Olivares
A group of people pray in front of a memorial dedicated to Jair, Yovani and Misael Olivares. Photography: Felix Marquez

Or, as Rosa put it, “We knew it was dangerous, but Pablo wanted a better life.”

On Thursday, 17 days after their bodies were found in a trailer in another country, Pablo, Jesús, Misael, Jair and Yovani finally returned home.

A procession of motorcycles accompanied Pablo’s coffin through Tlapacoyan and a band played The last caravan. Rosa also bought her brother a cake to make up for the bread and mayonnaise he had to make do with on his birthday.

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At Naolinco, three soccer balls were placed next to the coffins of Misael, Jair and Yovani, and a glass of water and a piece of bread were placed in front of each of their photos.

“These are the worst days of my life,” said Yolanda Olivares, Jair and Yovani’s mother. “They had their dreams. The last thing I said to them was that I wanted them to be okay. I didn’t cry when they left and now I’ve cried so much I don’t have anymore. of tears.

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