Camión de la Muerte


It was a typical Saturday night at the Border Patrol checkpoint outside Laredo, Texas: cars and commercial trucks lined up and waiting to pass the last line of agents and cameras on the northbound highway. Every day there are thousands of them, an endless river of people and things moving between the U.S. and Mexico. Among the vehicles that night was a blue and white Peterbilt semi-truck with a glistening, stainless steel bumper. James Matthew Bradley, the 60-year-old long-haul driver behind the wheel, purchased the vehicle just a few months earlier, paying $50,000 with plans of financing the remaining $40,000. It was Bradley’s first job since his leg was amputated in May, making the July 22 trip a sort of maiden voyage in the new rig. Bradley didn’t have a license to operate the vehicle, but that didn’t stop him from accepting a contract with his former employer, the Iowa-based company Pyle Transportation, for work in Texas. With the slogan “Keepin’ it Cool Since 1950,” Pyle advertised itself as a pro in long-distance, refrigerated meat and produce delivery.

Bradley was waved through the checkpoint at 10:01 p.m. without going through secondary screening. Though the sun set hours before, the heat wasn’t letting up as he rolled on toward San Antonio. Signs along Interstate 35 issued advisories about the danger of leaving children alone in a vehicle. On the day Bradley hit the road, the high in San Antonio reached 100 degrees. Making his way into the city, the temperature remained in the upper 90s. But for the people crammed inside his trailer, it was much, much hotter. They came from Mexico and Guatemala. Most were men, many of them young, but there were women and children packed into the space as well. It was dark, and oxygen was in short supply. The refrigeration system wasn’t functioning, and the heat, resonating off the tightly packed bodies, was unbearable. Skin turned hot to the touch. People began losing consciousness, one later woke up certain he had died and gone to hell. With no water to drink and their screaming and pounding failing to bring Bradley’s vehicle to a stop, the people inside the trailer began to die.

San-Antonio-Map-final-1506737116

Map: The Intercept

As the migrants in his trailer struggled for air, Bradley pulled into a Walmart parking lot in southwest San Antonio. He parked in an emptied-out area on the building’s west side, near a line of trees and shrubs that gives way to a residential neighborhood. At some point after he parked, a man got out of the trailer and approached a Walmart employee asking for water. The employee called 911. A San Antonio police officer responded at 12:23 a.m. The Walmart employee told the officer about a suspicious truck in the lot and said it appeared multiple people needed help. After shining his flashlight in the cab, Bradley emerged, the officer later stated, and was detained on the scene. First responders from the San Antonio Fire Department pulled into the lot at 12:26 a.m. Migrants who were conscious and capable of walking were lined up along the brick wall of the shopping center, where Walmart employees brought them water and ice. The scene in and around Bradley’s trailer was ugly: 31 people in various stages of consciousness, many of them barely clinging to life, eight already dead. Two more died at the hospital in the hours that followed, making the incident the deadliest discovery of its kind in more than a decade.

A specialized ambulance bus capable of carrying 20 patients at a time was called in, and a disaster plan overseen by a coalition of San Antonio emergency service providers was activated. “Normally our disaster plan is for trauma,” said Dr. David Miramontes, medical director for the San Antonio Fire Department, who was on hand for the response. “Shootings, bus accidents, multiple vehicle accidents,” are more common. Multi-casualty incidents in which everybody’s suffering from the same medical condition are very unusual, he told me. The heat-related medical issues in this case were particularly serious, with many of the migrants on the scene exhibiting temperatures of 106 degrees. Without swift action, they wouldn’t be able to get rid of the heat and risk of tissue damage to their kidneys, lungs, and brain would rise. If left untreated, heatstroke can break down the human body’s ability to clot blood, resulting in extensive bleeding, Miramontes explained. “If you saw these patients the next day,” he said. “They’d be bleeding from everywhere.”

Walmart shoppers gathered to watch, some snapping photos on their phones, as the patients were loaded into emergency vehicles and a medevac helicopter, bound for seven hospitals across the San Antonio area. Overhead, a police chopper scanned the shrubbery and backyards that partially surround the store. Local TV crews assembled for a late-night press conference. Laying out what he described as evidence of a “human trafficking crime,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said surveillance footage at the store captured “a number of vehicles” pulling up to Bradley’s trailer and whisking away an unknown number of migrants. “This is not an isolated incident,” the police chief said. “Fortunately, there are people who survived, but this happens all the time.” Because of the nature of the crimes allegedly involved, agents with the San Antonio office of Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, the wing of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that conducts human trafficking and smuggling investigations, were called in. Bradley was transferred to the feds and taken into custody for questioning.

At first, Jonathan Ryan ignored the late-night buzzing of his cellphone. But by the time Chief McManus showed up on TV, Ryan, an immigration attorney and executive director of Raices, a Texas-based legal advocacy organization, was tuning in. As it happened, Ryan’s office had been in communication with the Mexican consulate in San Antonio as part of an outreach effort to Mexican nationals in the city. Speaking with contacts there, Ryan agreed to meet with survivors at hospitals across San Antonio. His first attempt, the Monday after Bradley’s trailer was discovered, was unsuccessful. “Administrators completely ceded authority of their hospitals to civil authorities,” Ryan said. The following day, he succeeded. “It was a bizarre scene,” Ryan said, recalling a hospital room with four Border Patrol agents in body armor and a pair of HSI agents clustered around the bed of a survivor. He described it as “a tableau of our times — a person in bed with IVs coming out of their body and a military apparatus hovering over them.” Because most survivors were being held two to a room, the opportunity for confidential conversations was shot. Still, Ryan managed to bring on seven survivors, all Mexican men, as clients. “They were very quickly discharged after we got access to them,” he said. Escorted out of the hospital by armed immigration agents, the men were taken to HSI headquarters in San Antonio. Ryan joined them.

The interviews lasted roughly an hour each. Ryan said his clients wanted to share what they knew. Still, it was difficult. They were still wearing their paper hospital gowns. “One gentleman still had an IV in his neck,” Ryan said. “Another individual, just hours before, had just learned of the death of a close family member in the trucking incident. Another had, maybe just the day before, learned of the death of his own sibling.” Invited by the U.S. attorney’s office to take part in the interviews, Ryan met with each of the men one-on-one. He explained their rights and described the existence of visas designed for victims of crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. HSI agents reiterated those rights, Ryan said, telling the men that the interviews were not for prosecution because they were considered victims in the matter. “Multiple times, people said that they were the people that these visas were invented for,” Ryan said. One by one, the survivors detailed the final horrifying hours of their trip. According to Ryan, one HSI agent, who described himself as “grizzled,” commented that the accounts he heard left him “shaken.” Once they were done, the men were shackled and transferred to the Central Texas Detention Facility — the same for-profit jail run by GEO Group where Bradley was being held.

Waving his Miranda rights, Bradley was interviewed by HSI agents at San Antonio police headquarters following his arrest. An account of his statements was included in a criminal complaint provided to the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas the next day. According to the complaint, Bradley told the police officer who first responded to the scene that he had no idea what was in the trailer, that he was transporting it on behalf of his boss to an unidentified purchaser in Brownsville, Texas, though his boss had provided no address or a timeframe for the delivery. Bradley explained that he first drove south, to Laredo, to have the truck washed and detailed, before returning north to San Antonio, even though Brownsville is roughly three and a half hours in the other direction. He said it wasn’t until he got to the parking lot, where he stepped out of his cab to pee, that he heard noise coming from inside. He was surprised, he told agents, when he opened the door and was met with a rush of “Spanish people.” Peering inside the cavity, it was then that he “noticed bodies just lying on the floor like meat,” the complaint said. Bradley told the agents he tried to administer aid to the migrants and that nobody came to take them away. He acknowledged that he knew the refrigeration system in the trailer was not functioning, that its four ventilation holes were likely plugged, and that he did not call 911.

Born in Gainesville, Bradley had lived in Florida, Colorado, and Kentucky. He took a job with Pyle Transportation in 2010, after answering a listing online. The company pled guilty to falsifying Department of Transportation records in 2001 and faced allegations from the IRS in 2015 for failing to pay employment and highway use taxes, the Associated Press noted, in an unsparing account of Pyle’s “financial troubles and tangles with prosecutors, regulators and tax collectors.” Former colleagues cast doubt on the idea that the man they knew as “Bear” would knowingly take part in a human smuggling operation. Pyle’s owner has denied any knowledge of his employee’s alleged involvement in the case. Federal regulators, meanwhile, have opened an investigation into the company’s operations. According to his fiancée, Darnisha Rose, Bradley’s leg was amputated as a result of diabetes. He then lost his trucking license after he failed to secure a medical card confirming he was fit to operate a big-rig. Rose said Bradley called her from the Walmart distraught and in tears.

Within 36 hours of the trailer’s discovery, HSI interviewed at least three survivors of the journey at local hospitals. Identified in the criminal complaint by initials, the undocumented men outlined a harrowing series of events that called parts of Bradley’s story into question. One described traveling with seven family members in hopes of reaching San Antonio. He said his contingent was part of a larger group of 24 people that were held in a Laredo stash house for 11 days before being loaded into the trailer, suggesting the trailer was loaded in the city while Bradley was there. The survivors estimated anywhere between 100 to 200 people were crammed into the space, a collection of voices potentially loud enough to be heard in Bradley’s cab.

The most detailed account was provided by a man from Aguascalientes, Mexico, who expected to pay his smugglers $5,000 for his journey to San Antonio. The complaint indicates the man first traveled to Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Tamaulipas, just across the border from Laredo, and was ferried across the Rio Grande at night with 28 others. The man told investigators he was asked to pay around $700 in fees that would be given to individuals linked to the Zetas drug cartel, both for protection and use of the raft. Once across, the man said his group walked all night and into the next morning. They were picked up by a silver Chevrolet Silverado and driven to the trailer, the man said. He estimated 70 people were already inside when his group arrived. The passengers were given pieces of tape of different colors, part of a system smugglers use to ensure their clients are transferred to the right people when a new stage of their journey begins. Told to step inside, the trailer’s door was closed behind them. It was pitch black and already hot, the man recalled, and there was no food or water. At approximately 9 p.m., word came that they would be taking off soon. The refrigeration was working, they were assured. It was about an hour before people began struggling to breathe. They pounded on the trailer and took turns taking in air through a single hole in its wall. At one point, the driver hit the brakes hard, causing the passengers to tumble over one another in the dark. Someone opened the door and there were six black SUVs waiting to take them away. They filled up quickly before disappearing into the night.

U.S. attorney Richard Durbin charged Bradley with approximately 36 counts of unlawfully transporting aliens for money, resulting in 10 deaths. Together, the charges carried a maximum sentence of life in prison or the death penalty. Bradley pleaded not guilty on all counts.

While Ryan, the immigration attorney, tried and failed to visit with his clients the day after their interviews with HSI, he managed to glean a “small sliver” of the stories behind their journeys in the days following their apprehension. “You’ve got people who were trying to save themselves, people who were trying to save their families, people who are trying to find a better life from all sorts of circumstances, some of which are very perilous,” he said. Their panic set in soon after the doors of the trailer closed, he was told. The lucky ones, if they could be called that, passed out quickly and were revived later. Anyone who stayed conscious throughout the trip, Ryan said, “witnessed horrible things and suffered horrible things.” A week after they were found, his clients had not seen the sky or breathed fresh air since the moment they stepped into the trailer. Ryan called the ordeal a symbol of “everything that’s wrong with our so-called criminal justice system” and “a glaring example of the use of incarceration as the single response to all humanitarian needs.” He also described a fear that, in the weeks to come, his clients’ trauma might evolve into a prolonged nightmare because, as he put it, “a tragedy can turn into a travesty at any time.”

The Border Patrol checkpoint Bradley passed through is located at mile marker 29 on I-35. “Charlie 29 is our flagship checkpoint,” Gabriel Acosta, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector, told me one afternoon as we made our way there. Passing warehouses and commercial trucks offered a reminder that Laredo is a border city, and that big rigs are part of its lifeblood. The trailers come up from Mexico loaded with merchandise before arriving at one of the U.S. warehouses, where a long-haul driver loads up the goods for their final destination. Acosta said he always knew he would join the Border Patrol. His dad wore the uniform for years. His brother wore it, too, though now he works at ICE doing deportations. It’s a familiar story in the Texas law enforcement community: a Latino guy, as comfortable in Spanish as he is in English, with deep roots in the state. Rumbling over a dirt road on a tour of Laredo earlier in the day, Acosta explained that the people who move unauthorized immigrants into the country are generally not members of some rigid, top-down criminal organization overseen by any specific Mexican drug cartel. “It’s not like what people see in the movies,” he said.

Instead, Acosta said, smugglers along the border operate more like a chain of independent contractors, each offering different services along the routes migrants rely on to get into the country. Their services were born out of the unprecedented post-9/11 build-up of enforcement and surveillance infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border. According to a recent Department of Homeland Security analysis, just over half of all unauthorized border crossers used a smuggler 30 years ago; now, nearly all do. The expansion of the border enforcement apparatus has increasingly required would-be border crossers to make a decision between the desert and the highway. Smugglers who specialize in the latter option require drivers, who use either passenger vehicles or commercially licensed tractor trailers. “Most of the truckers that come into Laredo, they’re not from here,” Acosta explained. “They’re not used to life on the border, and the criminal element, they know that and they try to exploit that. So they’ll go and they’ll try to recruit using women, drugs, booze, and money. To someone who’s not from here, never been exposed to that — it’s easy to make a quick thousand dollars, five thousand bucks.” With the driver recruited, the next stage in a smuggling or trafficking operation typically involves picking passengers up from a stash house somewhere in or around Laredo. Acosta said he couldn’t recall a single case in his 20 years on the job of a loaded trailer being busted as it passed through the city’s actual port of entry.

Once the loaded trailer is attached, the final obstacle for a northbound driver is Charlie 29. Pulling into the six-lane checkpoint, with its two outside lanes reserved for commercial trucks, we slowed down to watch the inspection process. One by one, the truckers pulled up, a Border Patrol agent would approach, the two would speak, then the truck would be waved through. It took about 30 seconds — no canine unit, no X-ray machines, no peeking into the trailers. Those only occur in secondary screenings, Acosta explained, and only if an agent has reason to suspect that something’s up. I asked Acosta what the agent is trained to look for. “That’s just law enforcement 101,” he said. “Like any cop, you just see, you just look at the person.”

With billions of dollars poured into border security each year, one might think detecting a crowd of people loaded into the back of a semi-truck would be the kind of thing the Border Patrol agents are well-positioned to stop. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, representing the 28th District, which includes Laredo, explained why that’s not exactly the case. Laredo’s port of entry processes the most commercial trucks in the country — more than 2 million each year, which translates to about 14,000 trucks per day, Cuellar told me. The congressman produced a stack of papers to illustrate his point: The graphics put the volume of truck traffic passing through the Laredo port in visual terms, illustrating that if you parked every commercial truck that passes through the port in a single day end to end, that 140-mile line of vehicles would nearly stretch from Laredo to San Antonio. If you did the same thing with the trucks that pass through the port in a year, the line would wrap around the planet twice. Of all the Border Patrol checkpoints the Laredo port feeds into, Charlie 29 is the busiest, with an average of 3,600 trailers coming through daily. Some of those go through secondary screening but most do not. Time is money, and in Laredo the minutes truckers spend waiting at checkpoints could impact hundreds of millions of dollars in trade. Still, if you want to find people loaded into the back of a commercial truck trailer, Cuellar said, “The whole key is send them to secondary inspection.” Cuellar’s office confirmed that did not happen on the night of July 22.

The tensions between competing economic, law enforcement, and humanitarian priorities that play out every day at the Charlie 29 checkpoint is one of the places where a Trumpian vision of perfect security runs into reality.

From the beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump surrounded himself with some of the most anti-immigrant figures in American politics, including individuals opposed not just to unauthorized immigration, but legal immigration as well; men and women whose policy views sit comfortably alongside those of white nationalists bent on reversing the country’s changing demographics. Inheriting a machinery for cracking down on immigrants that has evolved over multiple administrations, the White House has agitated for the maximum level of enforcement possible. As a result, virtually every undocumented immigrant in the country has now been prioritized for deportation. By broadening the category of individuals prioritized for enforcement, millions of people who had little reason to fear being deported this time last year now do. In June, ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan — an immigration enforcement veteran who has made a name for himself as a prolific deporter — said the psychological impact was a good thing, telling Congress that every undocumented person in the country “should be afraid.”

In addition to expanding its deportation targets, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made smuggling cases a prosecutorial priority. On a tour of the border last summer, in which he described the region as a sprawling war zone where beheadings are rampant, the attorney general paved the way for the administration to federally prosecute individuals who pay to have their loved ones smuggled into the U.S., including parents trying to reunite with their children. Those investigations have already begun, and hundreds of people have already been arrested.

By unchaining ICE, the administration addressed a longstanding frustration among the agency’s rank and file, said Jerry Robinette, a former San Antonio HSI special agent in charge, or SAC. On one hand, any honest ICE agent can see the dire situations people are fleeing from when they come to the U.S. “The threats in those countries are real, and if anybody thinks it ain’t, then they’ve got their head in the sand,” Robinette said. “It’s heartbreaking.” But on the other hand, there was a sense among some ICE agents, particularly in the final years of the Obama administration, that enforcement priorities handed down from the White House hobbled agents in their efforts. In Robinette’s view, this contributed to a lack of deterrence that in turn encouraged migrants to take dangerous risks.

In the months before and after Trump’s election — October and November 2016 — border apprehensions climbed to levels not seen since the arrival of tens of thousands of Central American children and families fleeing violence and poverty in 2014. Once Trump took office, those numbers plummeted to levels not seen since the 1970s. The administration repeatedly points to this drop as vindication of its deterrence-centric model of enforcement. As a DHS report published this month noted, however, apprehensions alone are not a clear measure of unauthorized immigration into the U.S. and, contrary to the Trump administration’s depiction of a porous divide between the U.S. and Mexico, “the southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before.”

“It’s dramatically more secure,” John Sandweg, a former ICE acting director during the Obama administration, told me. “We are just incapable of passing any immigration legislation.”

With men like Sessions and his longtime aide Stephen Miller crafting and implementing policy, the Trump administration has done the opposite of moving toward a model in which legal immigration to the U.S. becomes easier for populations that have historically done so without authorization, all the while calling for massive increases in enforcement. In other words, Sandweg argued, the exact conditions that have made crossing the border deadlier are becoming more entrenched under Trump. “When you take this ‘we’re going to be tough’ approach, what you end up doing is you’re not eliminating people’s desire to come this country, nor the opportunity that is here to work even when you’re unlawful, and you end up paying smugglers and you end up seeing extreme measures,” he said, including tragedies like San Antonio.

“This idea that we’re going to be harder on immigration, that it’s somehow going to be a deterrent, is ridiculous,” Sandweg added. “It’s a byproduct of our failure to get any legislation done to address this issue.”

For all of the talk of immigration and border security that’s made its way into the national political conversation, a deeper understanding of the way smuggling and unauthorized border crossings actually work is crippled by a lack of critical information. “We don’t even know how many people make it,” Dr. Gabriella Sanchez, a sociocultural anthropologist with the Migration Policy Centre, told me. “If we are only going by the stories or the testimonies of the migrants who weren’t able to make it, if we only listen to that side of the story, we’re just getting half of it.”

Because smuggling successes unfold in secret, other metrics are used as proxies to estimate how many people are coming into the U.S. without authorization. Apprehensions are one example; deaths could be used as another. This summer, the Missing Migrants Project, a Berlin-based United Nations affiliate, issued a report noting that migrant deaths over the first seven months of 2017 were up 17 percent from last year, with July marking the deadliest month so far. Although the number sounds quite high, the increase reflected a total of 35 more deaths. As of this month, Missing Migrants’ data now indicates the overall number of border deaths is lower than it was last year. These kinds of numbers get interpreted to justify and criticize various border-related polices, but they can quickly change and none of them are an adequate stand-in for the data that’s missing. Take the number of migrants found in the back of commercial trucks like Bradley’s. According to Customs and Border Protection figures released to The Intercept, the total number of “deportable aliens” found in the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector jumped from 335 in 2015 to 697 in 2016. In the first seven months of 2017, however, the Border Patrol recorded finding 212 undocumented immigrants in trailers — exactly half of what the total was over the same period last year. One could interpret the drop as reflecting some broader trend, but then again, two heavily loaded trailers could be discovered tomorrow and the gap between 2016 and 2017 could be significantly reduced. All the while, an unknown number of trucks would be passing through Laredo undetected.

In general, the half-dozen current and former federal immigration officials I spoke to on the border acknowledged that the use of tractor trailers on I-35 is on the rise. Explanations varied, however. Alonzo Peña, a 28-year veteran of border law enforcement, who served as an ICE SAC in both San Antonio and Phoenix, had the most specific theory: that a 2014 decision to flood the border with hundreds of state troopers may have prompted smugglers to shift from using passenger vehicles to commercial trucks. “In a passenger vehicle or a passenger van, it’s easier to detect a large load of individuals than it is in a concealed tractor trailer,” he said. Port cities like Laredo, where tractor trailers are everywhere, are easy places to blend in, he said, adding, “We’re probably going to see more tractor trailers used to move these individuals.”

Weaving through Laredo’s back streets, Acosta downplayed the increased use of commercial trailers along I-35. “We’ve always seen it,” he said. For a lifelong Texas border lawman like Acosta, history did not begin with Donald Trump, and so he resists describing what’s happening right now as genuinely new or unprecedented. He’s part of a community that remembers the 2003 Victoria case, in which 19 migrants died after the trailer they were riding in was abandoned along the highway. The dead included a 5-year-old boy who perished in his father’s arms, suffocating in the trailer’s 173-degree heat. Homan, the current ICE acting director, investigated Victoria. Relying on information provided by survivors, the case led to more than a dozen convictions, including the driver, Tyrone M. Williams, who, after being initially sentenced to life in prison, is now serving a nearly 34-year sentence. It was the first major investigative test for ICE — created just two months before as part of the post-9/11 creation of the DHS — and it all happened a decade and a half before Trump.

“It’s stuff that we see on a daily basis on the border, that’s just how life is,” Acosta said. “Illegal immigration has been here way before I got here, and it’s gonna be here once I retire.”

Harry Jimenez, a career border law enforcement official, said the explanation for the increased use of tractor trailers was simple: money. A trailer full of people is worth more money than a carload. One has to assume that trucks are getting through, Jimenez explained. “The consolidation, evidently, has proven to the organizations that it’s worth it,” he said. “That’s why when Border Patrol talks about the great job that they’re doing, the apprehensions are down, I don’t believe it. Is it that the apprehensions are down, or you’re catching less people?”

For nearly 30 years, Jimenez worked as a federal immigration agent, rising through the ranks to become HSI’s San Antonio SAC. In March, he retired and became deputy chief of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. Jimenez views smugglers with contempt and believes in arresting them. But like many career law enforcement officials I spoke to on the border, he also recognizes that enforcement drives changes in smuggling practices, which heightens dangers for migrants. He observes that enforcement alone won’t fix a broken immigration system; that the people who cross the U.S. border are human beings; that nearly all of them present zero threat to the country; and that most are fleeing serious danger and economic despair.

“Many people inside the beltway cannot find the I-35 checkpoint, or the border for that matter, not even with a GPS or a compass,” he said. As a result, half-baked policies like arresting parents who pay to be reunited with their children get passed off as serious solutions to unauthorized migration. And that’s when people are paying some attention. Most of the time, Jimenez added, the tragedies and complexities of the border simply go unnoticed. “It’s sad because we are talking about this case because it happened here in the backyard,” Jimenez said, referring to San Antonio. “If it happened 50 miles away from here, nobody cares. That’s the challenge we have.” The San Antonio case may have received national attention because of the current political atmosphere, Jimenez went on to say, but “it’s not going to be the last time that you’re going to have people dying in the back of a tractor trailer, or in the trunk of a car, or in the back of van, or in the back of a box truck.

“It happens every day,” he said. “And until we figure out a way to balance that immigration reform, it’s going to happen.”

On July 26, nine shaken and exhausted survivors of the San Antonio journey appeared in a San Antonio court. The eight men and one woman wore the same navy-blue prison jumpsuits given to federal prisoners. Chains were wrapped around their waists and their hands were cuffed in front of them. Along with four others who appeared in court earlier in the week, they were informed that they would be held as material witnesses in the capital case against Bradley, which U.S. attorneys would present before a grand jury. Through a translator, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Chestney explained that they were not being charged with a crime, but they would be held in federal custody under supervision by the U.S. Marshals Service. They were then led to a white Geo Group van and returned to the private prison company’s downtown detention center.

As the U.S. attorney’s office began building its case, new information about the men and women who boarded the trailer emerged. The vast majority were Mexican nationals, with at least 11 hailing from Aguascalientes. A half-dozen others came from Guatemala. Thirteen remained hospitalized, some in grave condition. Four of the survivors were minors, each having made the journey without their parents. As they worked to identify and repatriate the dead, the consulates of Mexico and Guatemala were flooded with calls from concerned family members wanting to visit their loved ones, but fearful that they would be seized by ICE agents and deported for being unauthorized. “We have been in touch with U.S authorities, and anyone who is accompanied by a consular official will not be questioned about their status,” said Reyna Torres Mendivil, the consul general of Mexico in San Antonio, at a press conference. Despite the assurances, tensions remained. Jose de Jesus Martinez, father of 16-year-old Brandon Martinez, told NPR that he was aggressively questioned by U.S. immigration officials as his comatose son was transferred between rooms. The confrontation led to nurses yelling at ICE agents to “take it outside,” said Martinez’s attorney, Alex Galvez. ICE defended its agents’ actions, saying they had no idea they were dealing with the father of a survivor.

In the days after Bradley’s arrest, mourners built a modest shrine in the corner of the Walmart parking lot where his trailer was opened. A gold-framed painting of the Virgin Mary rested against the trunk of a slender tree. Surrounding the virgin were flowers, candles, stuffed animals and, more than anything else, bottles of water. Each afternoon, people would come to pay their respects. They were overwhelmingly Latino families — grandmothers and grandfathers, young couples, men in work pants and dusty leather sandals, and many parents with their children. As shoppers bustled in and out of the store a few hundred yards away, they maintained a constant presence through sunset and into the evening, quietly saying prayers and sharing updates on the case. In a semi-circle around the tree stood 10 white crosses, one for each life lost. In front of the crosses was an overturned Styrofoam cooler. Buscando el sueño Americano, it said in Spanish. Then, in English: “Looking for a better life.”

The story of the camión de la muerte, the truck of death, rattled the Latino community in Texas during a tense period of policy fights over immigration enforcement. Politicians and law enforcement officials uniformly condemned the ordeal as a human tragedy, before offering up their takes on what it said about the nation’s immigration system. “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote on Facebook the night after migrants were rushed to the hospital. “Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform, so we can control who enters our country.” Sessions echoed the line days later. Homan said more of the same during an appearance at the White House, telling reporters the “message” sent by so-called sanctuary cities “drives what happened in San Antonio.”

Patrick said the case was the reason he made passing a controversial law known as SB4 a “top priority.” As a guiding star for what the Trump-Sessions vision of immigration enforcement could look like at the state level, SB4 not only permits police to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts and to question anyone they stop about their immigration status, it also bars any public official from preventing them from doing so by leveraging the threat of a misdemeanor charge and possible jail time. The law, which was blocked by a federal court in late August, has been deeply unpopular among police chiefs in the state’s largest cities, who argue that such initiatives create fear in immigrant communities and result in fewer crimes being reported. Several of those cities, including San Antonio, joined a lawsuit, brought by the city of El Cenizo, arguing the bill was unconstitutional. “There’s nothing positive that this bill does for the community or law enforcement,” said McManus, the San Antonio chief whose officers were first to respond to the trailer tragedy.

The fraught political context was one of the complicating factors facing attorneys for the San Antonio survivors. Following their first court appearance, American Gateways, a legal organization that provides services to low-income immigrant communities across central Texas, joined Jonathan Ryan and the legal team at Raices in addressing the survivors’ immigration-related legal matters. Judge Chestney appointed a separate attorney to advocate for the material witnesses, selecting Michael McCrum, a veteran of the San Antonio legal community. McCrum spent more than a decade as a federal prosecutor, including serving as chief of the Major Crimes Division in the Western District’s San Antonio division. As the weeks went on, the government’s list of material witnesses would expand to include 22 survivors. McCrum was responsible for their representation in the U.S. attorney’s case against Bradley, while American Gateways and Raices handled the immigration issues.

Comments from public officials repeatedly portrayed the attorneys’ clients as victims of terrible crimes. Exactly what crimes, however, was open to interpretation. Despite earlier characterizations of what happened from McManus, as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, it quickly became clear to the immigration attorneys that the DoJ would be pursuing the case as a smuggling crime, not human trafficking. This meant the possibility of getting trafficking visas for the survivors was off the table. Instead, the lawyers would be pursuing so-called U visas, which apply to victims of a range of crimes who suffer significant abuse and cooperate with authorities on investigations into those crimes. Unlike the T visa, certification of a U visa requires signoff from a law enforcement agency.

As the immigration attorneys worked to gather information for the requests, they collaborated with McCrum on a shared goal: getting their clients out of jail. “Every day that they spend in a jail cell affects their psyche,” McCrum told me, shortly after he was assigned the case. “They’re in a confined area that they’re not allowed to leave — just like they were in that truck when they were not allowed to leave, and they were dying in there.”

The U.S. attorney’s office had leveraged the harshest punishment available against Bradley, and it was widely understood that prosecutors would lean hard on the driver, in hopes that he would flip and lead investigators to others involved in the alleged scheme. “The truck driver is certainly being charged, but that’s not the endgame,” Shane Folden, the current HSI SAC in San Antonio, told me. “Charging one person in an organization certainly isn’t going to be a significant disruption or a dismantlement.” Investigators wanted to find those responsible for bringing the migrants across the border, they wanted the money men, and the stash house managers, Folden explained. “People are dying,” he said, adding that the smugglers “consider these folks commodities.”

Where that process would leave the material witnesses, who each shared their stories with investigators, was unclear. One option was that it could go down like the Victoria case in 2003. In that instance, the government had more than 50 material witness, each one a survivor of a hellish ordeal. Roughly 20 of those witnesses were called upon at trial, said Jeff Vaden, a prosecutor in the case. The investigation and the convictions it led to spanned years. Prosecutors borrowed a semi-truck and drove the same route as the driver, at night, to understand how the tragedy might have unfolded. They filled a trailer with 72 people to get sense of what it must have been like inside. “When you put 72 in there, standing up, you’re pretty much shoulder to shoulder,” Vaden told me. Throughout the process, the material witnesses remained in the U.S., outside of detention, and were provided work authorization documents by ICE so they could earn a living while they were in the country. “When we needed them for trial, we would bring them back to Houston,” Vaden said. By the time the cases concluded in 2008, at least one of the survivors had obtained a U visa.

McCrum feared the San Antonio case would take on a different shape. While the Western District had released material witnesses in federal cases in the past, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Antonio, just like every U.S. attorney’s office in the country, now operates under the direction of the most anti-immigrant attorney general in recent memory. “The administration won’t want it to appear that they’re being sympathetic to people that are here illegally,” McCrum said. Instead, the veteran attorney worried his clients would be chewed up and spit out, regardless of what they went through or their contributions to the case. “The government wants your help, but then says, once you help me, I don’t have need for you anymore, and so I’m not going to help you at all,” McCrum said. “Here, help me out, but let me stomp on your face after.”

The federal grand jury’s five-count indictment against Bradley came down on August 16. It included several crimes related to illegal for-profit transportation of undocumented people resulting in death and injury, as well as one count of possession of a firearm, a .38 caliber Derringer pistol, by a convicted felon. The possibility of a death sentence or life in prison remained in place. The indictment listed the names of seven of the victims in the tragedy, whose ages ranged from 18 to 37: Benjamin Martinez-Arredondo, Jose Rodriguez-Aspeitia, Ruben Hernandez-Vargas, Jorge Reyes-Noveron, Ricardo Martinez-Esparza, Osbaldo Rodriguez-Cerda, Mariano Lopez-Cano, and Frank Fuentes-Gonzalez, a former DACA recipient from Virginia. The U.S. attorney’s office withheld the name of a minor who died in the trailer, while the final victim remained unidentified nearly a month on. Beyond that, the indictment provided the public with little new information. It did not reflect the fact that four of the government’s material witnesses testified before the grand jury. It certainly did not mention that at least two of the material witnesses were at one point kept in the same holding cell as Bradley for more than an hour. Placing a defendant in a capital case involving multiple deaths in the same cell with material witnesses cooperating with federal investigators is “extremely unusual,” McCrum said. “It should have not happened.”

For the attorneys, it felt like a perfect representation of the challenge they kept coming up against: that the government routinely treated their clients more like criminals than cooperating witnesses and victims. In the weeks after Bradley’s trailer was found, the teams of immigration lawyers found themselves bouncing from one law enforcement agency to another, seeking an official who would sign their U visa certification requests. Griselda Barrera, director of American Gateways San Antonio office, sent her first request to the San Antonio Police Department and was told that the department did not have jurisdiction in the case. “So then we made the request with the Homeland Security office,” she said. Same answer. Barrera then sent the request to the U.S. attorney’s office. The office refused to sign. The reason was unclear. “I asked and they would not give me an answer,” McCrum said. As efforts to begin the visa process ran aground, so too did attempts to get the material witnesses out of jail. McCrum spoke to the U.S. attorneys, telling them he intended to seek a reconsideration of the detention because family members had been found who were willing to take the survivors in as the legal process ran its course. “The U.S. attorney’s office said they were going to take an opposing position to that,” McCrum said. “They did not want them released.” Even basic information about the night the lawyers’ clients were found was difficult to obtain, in part because the police refused to release its report because it included potential evidence of crimes against a minor, a protected category of information under Texas law. The report was also withheld from The Intercept following a public information request.

McCrum and the immigration lawyers were running into opposition at every turn. Then, in late August, they seemed to get a break: Chief McManus of the San Antonio Police Department reversed course, signing off on U visa certifications for every witness in the case. Barrera said her organization engaged in talks with police officials in the preceding weeks and explained that the department didn’t need to lead the investigation in order to sign off on the certifications. But, she added, “I’m not sure that that’s the reason why they ended up doing it because we didn’t get a formal response as to why they were going to sign.” With the certifications in hand, the attorneys could now set their clients on the long road to potential visas and turn their attention to more immediate matters, including a series of depositions in the case against Bradley. Generally in federal cases, detained material witnesses are released from custody following depositions, but things get more complicated when those material witnesses are unauthorized immigrants. While American Gateways pushed for a guarantee that the San Antonio survivors would be released following their depositions, the U.S. attorney’s office didn’t budge. “They were very clear that there were not going to be giving any type of guarantees or any type of assurances that any of the individuals would be released for their testimony or their trial,” Barrera said.

For Ryan, the Raices executive director, the U visa certifications felt like the first piece of good news since late July. “What we’ve seen is a police department that has stepped up,” he said. “But I will call it what it is on the part of the U.S. attorney’s office in turning a blind eye to the reality that everyone sees — that these people have been victimized.” Because the certifications could be revoked at any time and because of their lengthy processing time, “law enforcement and prosecutors maintain a heavy hammer over all of our clients,” Ryan said. At the same time, he said, that meant there was “nothing but mutual interest among the prosecutors and the witnesses that everyone stays available and ready to assist, come what may, in the prosecution.”

On September 5, a grinning Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s plans to kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era initiative providing protection from deportation for nearly 800,000 individuals brought without authorization to the U.S. as children. That same morning, as young people across the country saw the futures they had strived to build being pulled away from them, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina Playton filed a motion to dismiss the complaints against all 22 material witnesses in the San Antonio case. The order was signed and with the stroke of a pen, the survivors of the deadly July 22 journey were told the justice system no longer required their services. They were ICE’s responsibility now. That afternoon the immigration enforcement agency began moving the survivors to a private detention facility for processing.

McCrum was still trying to make sense of the decision when we spoke that night. There had been no call from the U.S. attorney’s office, no heads-up that his clients were being released, and thus no opportunity for him to explain to them what was happening, why they were being relocated to an ICE detention center, and what to expect next. “Their families have been calling me,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell them.” According to McCrum, the obvious explanation for the decision was that Bradley flipped. “They won’t confirm that it’s a plea agreement; they’ve just said it’s an arrangement, which tells me that they’re investigating other folks,” he explained. “That doesn’t necessarily shock me, but what surprises me is just how cavalierly they treat their lives.” It was precisely the scenario he had feared when he was assigned the case in July — that the government would rely on his clients for information, then discard them once they were no longer useful, without taking into account the fact that they were both contributors to the prosecutors’ case and victims of terrible crimes. “They said, ‘We really want your cooperation, we know you’ve been traumatized. Please cooperate with us to get the bad guy,’” McCrum said. “They’ve been nothing but cooperative, but now that they don’t need them anymore, they just dismiss complaints and throw them into ICE custody without even telling me what’s going on.”

The dismissals came on a Tuesday, two days before the material witnesses were scheduled to begin their depositions. “We had been visiting our clients and preparing them,” Barrera said. “Then, from one day to another, we’re at the immigration office having an entirely different conversation.” By Wednesday, two men had been removed to Mexico. Both were clients of Jonathan Ryan and the Raices legal team, though the attorneys didn’t learn about their deportations until the following afternoon. “We’ve been the last to know anything,” Ryan said, an hour after his office received confirmation of the removals from ICE. While two of Ryan’s clients were deported, ICE placed a third under an order of supervision and released him in Florida. The man had a prior order for removal but for reasons that remained unclear to his attorneys, he was spared from deportation. That disjointedness is a core component of the U.S. immigration system, Ryan explained, and part of what makes representation so challenging. Comprised of “many different offices with many different sets of leaders and their own prerogatives and their own goals,” the cogs in that machine sometimes produce favorable or empathetic outcomes, Ryan said, but “the collective whole tends toward the negative, and we’re seeing that play out in real time right here, right now.”

Dismissed as witnesses, the survivors joined the roughly 34,000 other immigrants held in detention centers across the country, their cases added to the hundreds of thousands of others currently being processed by the nation’s overloaded immigration court system. Because the San Antonio Police Department signed off on the U visa certifications, they still have a chance of legally staying in the U.S., but there’s no guarantee. Congress maintains an annual quota of 10,000 U visas. Year after year, including in 2016, that cap has been met. Those who don’t make it get in line for the next year. “The issue now is that they’re in detention and that this U visa application doesn’t really prevent them from being deported,” Barrera said, which means the attorneys are searching for other avenues for relief. “I think most of them are tired of this entire process,” she said. “They’ve endured a lot and I think for them, every minute of the day is eternal.” When asked if she thought things would have gone differently for her clients under a different administration, Barrera said yes. “I do believe that there would have been at least some different steps taken,” she said, adding that the sequence of events “justified the fear that a lot of families here in the community have.

“They weren’t released. They were detained. They’re now in an immigration detention center possibly facing deportation,” she said. “I think that adds to what the community is sensing as a whole — that whether it be this administration or just this time in our life, immigration laws are just a lot harsher, and the compassion is going away.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in San Antonio declined to answer a series of questions for this story and turned down multiple interview requests. Bradley’s attorneys and the San Antonio Police Department did the same. Recent developments in the case, however, suggest McCrum’s conclusion about the driver cooperating with the government may be well-founded. On September 20, the U.S. attorney’s office submitted a notice to the court that it was no longer seeking the death penalty against Bradley. The following day, a superseding indictment was entered disclosing a second arrest in the case. In a flurry of court documents that followed, the government revealed a previously undisclosed HSI surveillance operation that had taken place in Laredo on July 24. That operation led to the arrest of a man named Pedro Silva Segura and the discovery of a stash house containing 18 undocumented immigrants. A criminal complaint submitted in the Southern District of Texas offered few details and the role Silva Segura allegedly played in the San Antonio tragedy was not laid out in the government’s charging documents — though a house prosecutors are seeking to seize in conjunction with Silva Segura’s arrest is an eight-minute drive from I-35, and HSI’s surveillance operation appears to have begun shortly after Bradley and the survivors pulled from his trailer first spoke to investigators. Six of the migrants found in the Laredo stash house are now being detained as material witnesses in the government’s case against Silva Segura. They reportedly identified the 47-year-old as the man who brought them food each day. Silva Segura is now facing the death penalty.

A common theme emerged in the statements of law enforcement officials after Bradley’s arrest: that what made his actions so heinous was that they required a willingness to see the people in his trailer as something other than human beings. They were treated as nothing more than a means to an end, and that was unacceptable. McCrum said it had become difficult to square the government’s treatment of his clients with its professed concern for their humanity. After nearly two months of being held in the same for-profit jail as Bradley, wearing the same prison garb and the same steel shackles, after being pressed for information and led to believe that they were the types of people the system is designed to protect, they were simply cast off. “The whole crime is that Bradley put them in a truck and didn’t consider them as humans and yet, that’s still how they’re being treated,” he said. “I wanted them to be treated as human beings.”

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