4 men arrested in deaths last year of 53 migrants trapped inside tractor-trailer

Makeshift memorial where dozens of migrants were found dead in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio
A man tacks a poem to a cross at a makeshift memorial where dozens of migrants were found dead in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)
Share via

U.S. authorities have announced the arrests of four men who they say were part of a human smuggling effort last year that ended in the deaths of 53 migrants — including eight children — left inside a tractor-trailer in the scorching Texas heat.

Authorities said Tuesday — the anniversary of the tragedy — that the four Mexican nationals had a planning role in the smuggling operation and knew the trailer’s air-conditioning unit was not working during the migrants’ three-hour ride from the border city of Laredo to San Antonio.

When the trailer was opened in San Antonio, 48 migrants were dead. An additional 16 were taken to hospitals, where five more died.


It was the deadliest tragedy to claim the lives of migrants smuggled across the border from Mexico. The dead included 27 people from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador.

The driver and another man were arrested shortly after the migrants were found. They were charged with smuggling resulting in death and conspiracy.

The four new arrests were made Monday in Houston, San Antonio and Marshall, Texas. Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, 30; Felipe Orduna-Torres, 28; Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, 37; and Armando Gonzales-Ortega, 53, were all charged with conspiracy to transport immigrants resulting in death, serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy. Each faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

The deaths of 46 people in San Antonio were apparently the latest in a global series of mass deaths by suffocation during human-trafficking attempts.

June 28, 2022

A federal grand jury indictment unsealed Tuesday reveals some details of a “patchwork association” of smugglers that allowed them to “consolidate costs, spread out risk and operate more profitably.”

The indictment alleges that the men worked with human smuggling operations in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and shared routes, guides, stash houses, trucks and trailers, some of which were stored at a private parking lot in San Antonio.

Migrants paid the organization up to $15,000 to be taken across the U.S. border. The fee would cover as many as three attempts to get into the country, the indictment said.


Migrants were given a code word to provide at various checkpoints on their journey, which would show they were paid customers of a smuggler who had made arrangements for them.

Two migrants were found dead and at least 10 were hospitalized after police received a call that they were ‘suffocating’ in a freight train.

March 25, 2023

The indictment said the men exchanged the names of migrants who would be smuggled in the truck. Orduna-Torres provided the address in Laredo where they would be picked up, and Gonzales-Ortega met them there, authorities said. The four then coordinated the trip and exchanged messages about the truck’s progress on the drive to San Antonio.

The truck was found on a remote road, and police officers detained driver Homero Zamorano Jr. after spotting him hiding in some nearby brush.

Surveillance video captured the 18-wheeler passing through a Border Patrol checkpoint. One survivor, a 20-year-old from Guatemala, told the Associated Press that the smugglers had covered the trailer’s floor with what she believed was powdered chicken bouillon, apparently to throw off any dogs at the checkpoint.

Another survivor, Adan Lara Vega, said that the truck was already hot when it left Laredo and that the trapped migrants soon started crying and pleading for water. Some took turns breathing through a single hole in the wall, while others pounded on the walls and yelled to get the driver’s attention.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is caught in an increasingly nasty feud with fellow Republicans. So how better to flex political muscle than packing migrants off to California?

June 20, 2023

A climate and health expert who has studied child deaths in cars said it would probably have taken an hour or less for temperatures to climb to 125 degrees or hotter inside the trailer.


“Human smugglers prey on migrants’ hope for a better life — but their only priority is profit,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said in a statement. “Tragically, 53 people who had been loaded into a tractor-trailer in Texas and endured hours of unimaginable cruelty lost their lives because of this heartless scheme.”