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Poverty, jobs and debt drive migrants to suffocating Texas truck

by Reuters
Tuesday, 25 July 2017 23:36 GMT

Police officers work on a crime scene after eight people believed to be illegal immigrants being smuggled into the United States were found dead inside a sweltering 18-wheeler trailer parked behind a Walmart store in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. July 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ray Whitehouse

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Ten migrants died and 29 were hospitalized after more than 100 were packed into the stifling tractor-trailer for a 150-mile (240-km) drive from the border to San Antonio

By Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz

GUATEMALA CITY/MEXICO CITY, July 25 (Reuters) - Delmin Lopez Colomo landed in a San Antonio hospital on Sunday along with 28 other migrants who slipped across the U.S. border and climbed into the back of a truck for a suffocating ride that killed 10 people.

For the 23-year-old Lopez, it was the second attempt to sneak into the United States - in part, so he could pay off debts he got into financing his first bid for a better life.

Now fear of another failure sits heavily on his loved-ones in western Guatemala, where his mother Eulalia Colomo frets his deportation could ruin the family of 12 children she said she had raised in a mountain village of cinder block homes.

Colomo, a 57-year-old housewife, said the family took a loan against their house to pay for her son's first trip last year that ended some 2,000 km (1,200 miles) from home with his capture just short of the U.S. border in the violent Mexican city of Reynosa.

"I hope they do us the favor of letting him stay because otherwise there's no way we can pay our debts," Colomo said by telephone from the village of Santa Irene in the western highlands of the central American nation. "My husband is a farmer and there are days he works and other days we don't eat."

U.S. law enforcement has granted temporary visas in previous migrant smuggling cases. Some survivors of the ordeal in Texas are seeking visas in exchange for testimony against those responsible for the incident, said Silvia Mintz, an attorney representing the Guatemalan Consulate in Houston.

Ten migrants died and 29 were hospitalized after more than 100 were packed into the stifling tractor-trailer for a 150-mile (240-km) drive from the border to San Antonio, where survivors spilled out in a Walmart parking lot on Sunday.

The truck driver accused of smuggling the migrants said he was unaware of the human cargo in the back until he took a rest stop in Texas, court papers showed on Monday. If convicted, James Bradley Jr., 60, could face the death penalty.

Delmin Lopez was found badly dehydrated but alive, and spoke to his mother from hospital for the first time since setting off on the perilous journey northward two months ago, she said.

Like many others crammed into the container, Lopez reasoned the chance of finding work in the United States outweighed the risk of becoming another statistic in U.S. President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration.

Figures suggest Trump's rhetoric has been a deterrent.

Apprehensions on the southwest border were down nearly 47 percent in the first six months of the year to 104,288 people, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics.

But having paid smugglers nearly $7,000 the first time, and with his mother facing bills for treatment of a throat ulcer, Lopez doubled down, paying another 24,000 quetzals ($3,300) to get into to the United States a second time, Eulalia Colomo said.

"He was very determined," she said.

Plagued by gang violence and poverty, the trio of Central American nations, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador together send the bulk of migrants entering the United States illegally.

However, turf wars between gangs have sparked a surge in violence in Mexico in the past 18 months, raising the incentive for some young Mexicans to risk the crossing.

So far authorities have identified a 20-year-old Guatemalan and four Mexicans among the dead in the truck. At least 21 Mexicans were also hospitalized, Mexico's government said.

Four of the migrants in San Antonio-area hospitals were from the small town of Calvillo in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes, according to officials and family members.

"In this town there is practically no family that does not have some (family) member in the U.S.A," said Adan Valdivia, the mayor of Calvillo, who said 24-year-old Mario Ramirez, was among the migrants trapped in the back of the truck.

Viridiana Ramirez, 25, said her brother Mario had struggled to find work in Calvillo and that friends already living in the United States convinced him to hazard the journey. "They said there's work here and you could come," she said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the uncle of another of the Mexicans hospitalized in San Antonio said traffickers had charged some of the Mexicans between $3,500 and $4,500 to get them from the center of the country into the United States.

"They left about two weeks ago, and my nephew called us to get someone to please stop the truck. He told us they couldn't breathe. The people were dying," he said. "It's not Trump; it's Mexico that's making our people die this way."

Separately, Guatemala's foreign ministry said that three of its citizens - one woman, a 16-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl - were found dead after trying to cross the Rio Grande, between the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez and the Texan city of El Paso.

(Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Dave Graham and Lisa Shumaker)

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