SAN ANTONIO — One of the undocumented immigrants who died in a stifling tractor-trailer here Saturday was a 19-year-old who grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from a Fairfax County high school before getting in trouble with the law and being deported to his native Guatemala, according to court records and government officials.
He was sneaking back into the United States.
Frank G. Fuentes was one of at least six Guatemalans packed into a poorly ventilated truck with scores of other migrants who had crossed the border illegally, said Cristy Andrino, the consul of Guatemala in McAllen, Tex.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Fuentes had been brought to this country before his third birthday and was deported on March 2 after being convicted of assault and battery by a mob. He was suspected of having ties to Mara Salvatrucha, the deadly street gang also known as MS-13.
The truck driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., has been charged with smuggling immigrants for financial gain resulting in death after the vehicle became dangerously overheated, killing 10 people and injuring 29 others in one of the worst cross-border smuggling disasters in recent history.
In addition to Fuentes, Andrino said, two Guatemalans were taken from the truck for medical treatment: a 17-year-old male, who remained hospitalized in stable condition as of Tuesday; and a 23-year-old man, who is a witness and has been released and transferred to some form of protective custody.
“They’re relieved that they survived,” Andrino said. “They didn’t know the risks they were facing.”
The two told authorities that they crossed into the United States from Mexico through a desert zone near Laredo, Tex., the Guatemalan foreign ministry said, and boarded a truck that they expected to take them to Houston. Three other Guatemalans were also on the truck, in addition to Fuentes and the two others who were found alive, the statement said. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Mexico’s government said Wednesday that 34 of the 39 people taken off the truck were Mexican nationals, including seven of the dead, according to a preliminary review. Most are still hospitalized. Dozens of others on the truck fled or were driven away before authorities arrived.
Fuentes, who presented himself on Facebook as an aspiring rap singer, died of “heat exposure and asphyxiation,” the Guatemalan government said.
His Facebook page, which was tagged with condolence messages Tuesday, said that he graduated from J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County in 2015.
“He brought so much positivity to so many people,” said Kelly Barrios-Mazariegos, who grew up with Fuentes and attended high school with him. “Every time you would tell him there was a problem or something, he would giggle, and he would say we would figure it out.”
But online records from Fairfax County Circuit Court show that Fuentes pleaded guilty to simple assault and battery by a mob, and grand larceny/pickpocketing, in March 2016. That July, Fuentes was arrested by federal agents, ICE said in a statement. His deportation was ordered in February.
When Barrios-Mazariegos last spoke to Fuentes on Snapchat a month ago, she said, he confided how much he was struggling in an unfamiliar country. “He’s been here forever,” she said. “He doesn’t know what Guatemala was. His home is here, his friends are here, his family is here.”
Barrios-Mazariegos has set up a GoFundMe page for Fuentes’s family. She said she hoped her friend, who loved skateboarding and music, would be remembered for more than his criminal record. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “He wanted to be better for his family and his mom . . . that’s all he cared about.”
ICE said Fuentes was suspected of being a member of MS-13, which has become reinvigorated in recent years as the number of young people crossing the border has surged.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Fuentes had obtained a reprieve from deportation under an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. His permission to stay expired June 5, 2016. He applied to renew it but “was discretionarily denied, based on a number of public safety concerns,” the agency said.
Another former classmate, Juan Benitez, said he and Fuentes grew up in the Culmore neighborhood and worked together at a Domino’s. Fuentes later worked in construction and took classes at Northern Virginia Community College, Benitez said. The two young men would work on cars together and talked about making a career in cars. Benitez pushed back on the government’s allegation that his friend was in a gang.
“Growing up where we grew up, it was just easier for the government to label him as a statistic and say that he was affiliated with a gang,” said Benitez. “Growing up in a rough neighborhood we stayed away from people like that. It was the only way to be safe.”
A cousin, Keller Adriano, who lives in Western Guatemala, said the family was devastated by the young man’s death. “May God keep you in his glory,” Adriano wrote in Spanish on his cousin’s Facebook page. “I know you’ll follow your career up there in heaven.”
Bradley pulled the truck into a Walmart parking lot late Saturday, according to charging documents. He told prosecutors he was unaware there were people in back until he heard banging and opened the doors.
The tractor-trailer bore the name of Pyle Transportation, a Schaller, Iowa-based trucking company that has a history of legal trouble and unpaid taxes, according to records reviewed by The Washington Post.
Owner Brian Pyle has said Bradley had worked with the company on and off for about five years. But Pyle said that he did not know what Bradley was hauling in the trailer on his latest Texas trip.
The federal government charged in March 2015 that Pyle Transportation had avoided tax obligations. Though the family-owned company withheld federal tax payments from its employees, it did not send that money to the federal government, the court complaint says. It also failed to pay taxes for heavy highway vehicle use.
Pyle Truck Lines faced felony charges in 2000 for falsifying a report or records to the secretary of transportation. A judge ordered the company to serve five years’ probation and pay $42,254 in restitution, according to federal court documents.
Andrino, the Guatemalan consul, said the U.S. attorney’s office, which is prosecuting Bradley, is considering offering at least some of his surviving passengers permission to stay in the United States. “We hope that since they’re victims, they’ll have some immigration relief,” Andrino said. “They’re like any victims.”
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “U visas” are made available for victims of some crimes who can help law enforcement officials with their investigations or prosecutions. These visas are valid for four years and can be extended.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas declined to say whether the survivors would be allowed to stay.
Two Mexican nationals appeared briefly in U.S. District Court on Tuesday afternoon, wearing arm and leg chains and identical blue jail scrubs. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Chestney told the men through an interpreter that they were not charged with a crime but were being held as material witnesses in the case against Bradley.
The men would be assigned lawyers and asked to give a video deposition in August, she said.
Balingit and Nirappil reported from Washington. Mark Berman, Abigail Hauslohner and Julie Tate contributed to this report.