The Trailer of Death

18 Immigrants Die Near Texas Border

Revolutionary Worker #1200, May 25, 2003, posted at

José Antonio Villaseñor Leon lived with his 5-year-old son, Marco Antonio, in a small apartment in Neza, a town just northwest of Mexico City. In early May, José Antonio visited his mother and sister in nearby Naucalpan de Juarez and told them that he and Marco Antonio were heading to the U.S.--"the other side"--in the hope of finding a better life.

José Antonio was taking care of his son after separating from his wife, and he was having a hard time making ends meet on his job as a taxi driver. "I want to give him a better education, and maybe I'll have better luck on the other side," José Antonio told his mother. He had sold his taxi and other possessions to pay the coyotes, or smugglers, for the trip across the border.

Around the same time, brothers Roberto and Serafin Rivera Gamez were also starting out toward "el norte" from the village of Pozos in the state of Guanajuato. The brothers, along with three friends who also headed north, were well-diggers, as are many other men in the village. But like countless others from all around the Mexican countryside, they could no longer make a living and faced hard choices.

Serafin Rivera had worked in the U.S. before--two years packing tomatoes in Florida. The money he sent back was a big help to the family. But when he came home last Christmas, he couldn't find any work-- so he decided to make the trip back north with his brother and friends. Serafin said good-bye to his wife and their two young boys. Roberto left behind his wife and 5-year-old son.

José Antonio and his son Marco and the brothers Roberto and Serafin were among the 18 immigrants who were found dead in southern Texas on May 14. They and as many as 100 or so other people were packed into a locked trailer truck being used by the coyotes, or smugglers, to bring the workers to Houston.

Many of the immigrants were from Mexico. Others were from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

The trailer had a cooling system, but it was not turned on. The temperature outside had reached 90 degrees--and inside the trailer, it was over 105. People tried to punch holes in the trailer walls and break out the tail lights in a desperate attempt to get fresh air.

One man in the trailer had a cell phone and called 911 for help--but the call went untranslated for four hours , until it was too late.

Apparently the driver of the 18-wheeler, who had been hired by the coyotes to take the immigrants from the border town of Harlingen to Houston, fled in panic, fearing that the noise from inside the trailer would attract attention. He was later arrested.

The trailer was abandoned at a truck stop near Victoria, on Route 59. Several dozen people were able to flee the scene and escape the clutches of the migra--INS agents--before the authorities arrived. Other survivors were detained or taken to the hospital--one immigrant died several days later in the hospital, bringing the total death toll to 19.

Those who perished inside the trailer died of suffocation, dehydration, and over-heating. Eduardo Ibarrola, the Mexican consul general in Houston, said survivors had told him "they were pounding on the walls [of the trailer] and yelling." Ibarrola told the press, "I have just seen the most horrible thing of my life. It's terrible, indescribable."


Back in Naucalpan de Juarez, the shocked relatives and friends grieved for José Antonio and little Marco. Cristina Leon Soto, José Antonio's mother, first got the news when she saw a TV news report of a trailer truck in Texas filled with dead immigrants. The newscaster reported that survivors described how one man desperately held up his 5-year-old son up to an air hole in the trailer in a frantic attempt to save the boy's life.

"The second I heard there was a man holding a 5-year-old boy, I knew it was my son, because he loved his son so much," Cristina said. Just two days earlier, José Antonio had phoned his sister Emma to report, "I've crossed. Don't worry. I'm waiting for a trailer to pick us up to go to Houston."

In Pozos, Patricio Rico Rivera, a nephew of Roberto and Serafin, said, "Nobody here has been able to sleep. It's so painful for everyone because everyone here is so close."

Another family member said, "I told Roberto that I didn't want him to go -- it's too dangerous. But he didn't want to hear that. They were going to find a job there so they could have a better life. They were going to Florida because they already had friends working there. And because they didn't have any money, their friends sent them money so they could go."


As the horrible deaths of the immigrants in the trailer made national headlines, officials from the local police to the Bush administration issued loud condemnations of the smugglers. An undersecretary at Bush's Department of Homeland Security said the agency would make investigation of this incident one of its highest priorities. Police officials said the truck driver and others would be harshly punished.

Packing so many people into a trailer in the south Texas heat and then abandoning them were certainly heartless acts. But there is much hypocrisy when government and law-enforcement officials point fingers of blame at others for incidents like this.

The trail of responsibility for these latest immigrant deaths in Texas--and for hundreds of others who die each year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border--leads right to the government offices in Washington, D.C., and to cold-hearted financiers of the IMF and World Bank.

The lives of millions have been ruined by NAFTA and the IMF/World Bank policies imposed on Mexico--and designed to bring in more profit to the monopoly capitalist corporations. The brutal IMF/World Bank "structural reforms" of Mexico's agriculture and "free trade" under NAFTA, 70% of Mexican peasants--15 million people--can no longer survive by working on the land. In several Central American countries, the drop in world coffee prices and other factors have led to famine conditions in recent years.

The deepening poverty and economic ruin devastating their homelands compel millions of people from Mexico and Central America to seek work in the U.S. The labor of Mexican and Central American immigrant workers--paid low wages and driven into the shadows by a government that calls them "illegal"--is vital to many areas of the U.S. economy, from meat-packing to garment and agriculture.

The journey across the Mexico-U.S. border is often deadly. The U.S. border policy known as Operation Gatekeeper and the overall militarization of the border, especially near urban areas, have forced many immigrants to risk death by crossing in desert and mountain areas or hidden in locked railroad boxcars and trailer trucks.

The trailer incident in southern Texas was one the largest groups of immigrants who have died crossing into the U.S. But each year, around 300 people lose their lives attempting to cross the border. Many die of dehydration in the Arizona desert or drown in Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) or irrigation canals. Some are shot by right-wing vigilantes who roam the border area.

In May 2001, 14 immigrants were found dead in the Arizona desert near Mexico. Last October, the decomposed bodies of 11 immigrants were found in a locked railway car in Denison, Iowa.

A day before the death of 18 immigrants in the trailer truck, two men drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande. And on May 16, just a few miles from where the 18 immigrants died in Victoria, another group of 18 undocumented immigrants were found in a trailer truck--fortunately, they all survived.


In Naucalpan de Juarez, a man selling flowers on the street called the deaths of José Antonio Villaseñor, his son, and other immigrants in Texas a "tragedy." But he said he himself was working hard to save up the money to make the trip up north. "There's just no work here," he said.

José Antonio's mother, Cristina Leon, said, "Something's got to change."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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