Texas tractor-trailer human smuggling survivor recalls harrowing journey: ‘They couldn’t breathe’

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One of the surviving illegal immigrants pulled from the sweltering hot tractor-trailer in Texas last week recounted the harrowing tale, describing how smugglers doused the bed of the truck with meat seasoning and later migrants farther from the door of the semitruck called out that they could not breathe.

Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás is one of 64 suspected illegal immigrants found inside an abandoned tractor-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio just hours after crossing a US Border Patrol checkpoint.

Authorities said 48 people were declared dead at the scene, while others were rushed to area hospitals.

The death toll has since climbed to 53 suspected illegal immigrants who perished as a result of the June 27 human smuggling operation, with the vast majority of victims being from Guatemala.

TEXAS TRACTOR TRAILER DRIVER SMILES FOR BORDER PATROL CHECKPOINT CAMERAS HOURS BEFORE MIGRANTS FOUND DEAD

Speaking by phone from her bed at Methodist Hospital Metropolitan in San Antonio Monday, 20-year-old Cardona Tomás, from Guatemala City, told The Associated Press that she believed the truck’s ultimate destination was supposed to be Houston, though she intended to head to North Carolina.

Mynor Cardona shows a photo on his cellphone of her daughter, Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás, at the hospital while receiving a visit, in Guatemala City, Monday, July 4, 2022.

Mynor Cardona shows a photo on his cellphone of her daughter, Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás, at the hospital while receiving a visit, in Guatemala City, Monday, July 4, 2022.
((AP Photo / Oliver de Ros))

Cardona Tomás said smugglers had confiscated their cellphones and covered the trailer’s floor with what she believes was powdered chicken broth, apparently to throw off any dogs at checkpoints. As she sat stuffed inside the stifling trailer with dozens of others, she said the powder stung her skin.

Remembering advice from a friend for her to stay near the door where it would be cooler, Cardona Tomás shared the advice with another friend she had made during the journey.

“I told a friend that we should not go to the back and should stay near (the entrance), in the same place without moving,” Cardona Tomás said. That friend survived, too.

“The people were yelling, some cried. Mostly women were calling for it to stop and to open the doors because it was hot, that they could not breathe,” she recalled, still laboring a bit to speak after being intubated at the hospital . She said the driver or someone else in the cab yelled back that “we were about to arrive, that there were 20 minutes left, six minutes.”

Mynor Cardona, Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás' father, enters the Foreign Ministry for a meeting with authorities to find out about the fate of his daughter, in Guatemala City, Thursday, June 30, 2022.

Mynor Cardona, Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás’ father, enters the Foreign Ministry for a meeting with authorities to find out about the fate of his daughter, in Guatemala City, Thursday, June 30, 2022.
((AP Photo / Moises Castillo))

“People asked for water, some had run out, others carried some,” she said.

The truck would continue stopping occasionally, and just before she lost consciousness, it was moving slowly. She woke up in the hospital.

Cardona Tomás’ father, back in the family’s hometown of Guatemala City, told the AP that he agreed to pay $ 4,000 to a smuggler – less than half of the total cost – to take his daughter to the US

She left Guatemala on May 30, traveling in cars, buses and finally the semitruck in Texas.

“She did not have a job and asked me if I would support her” in migrating to the US, her father, Mynor Cordóna, said Monday, explaining that he knew of other cases of children who just left without telling their families and ended up up disappearing or dying, so he decided to back her.

Mynor Cardona and Ufemia Tomas, parents of Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás, smile as they talk to her through a call to the hospital where she is being treated in Guatemala City, Monday, July 4, 2022.

Mynor Cardona and Ufemia Tomas, parents of Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás, smile as they talk to her through a call to the hospital where she is being treated in Guatemala City, Monday, July 4, 2022.
((AP Photo / Oliver de Ros))

Cordóna had stayed in touch with his daughter up until the morning of June 27. Her last message to him was at 10:28 am in Guatemala, or 11:28 am in Texas. “We’re going to go in an hour,” she wrote.

“I did not know that she would travel in a trailer,” he said. “She told us it would be by foot. It seems like at the last moment the smugglers decided to put (her) in the trailer, along with two more friends, who survived. One of them is still in critical condition.”

It was not until late that night that Cardona Tomás’ family learned of the abandoned trailer. It was two more days before relatives in the United States confirmed that she was alive and hospitalized.

“We cried so much,” Cordóna said. “I even was thinking where we were going to have the wake and bury her. She is a miracle.”

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Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry has said that 20 Guatemalans died in the incident, 16 of whom have been positively identified. Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro said he hoped the first bodies would be repatriated this week.

Four men, including the driver of the truck, have been charged in connection with what’s been described as the deadliest human smuggling operation at the US-Mexico border in recent history.

Along the border in Texas, US authorities stopped migrants from crossing illegally 523,000 times between January and May, up from 417,000 over the same span a year ago.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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