MEXICO CITY — Days after they said goodbye to their sons and daughters, they started receiving the calls: Their loved ones had arrived in Texas, but perished in the back of an abandoned, sweltering tractor-trailer.
The two men, Fernando Jose Redondo Caballero, 20, and Alejandro Miguel Andino Caballero, 24, had left home in early June and paid a smuggler to make the journey north. They traveled with Margie Tamara Paz Grajeda, 25, Alejandro Miguel’s girlfriend.
Caballero described her sons as “healthy, studious.” She told journalists they loved soccer and dancing and left “in search of a better future.”
“For me they were the sweetest boys in my world,” she said, through tears.
As medical examiners continued the painstaking process of identifying victims, families across Mexico and Central America began learning that loved ones who left in search of a future in the United States are among the 53 dead.
A portrait of those who were inside the tractor-trailer is slowly coming together. The migrants hailed from as far away as the remote Mayan village of Nahuala, high in the mountains of Guatemala. Some had been in the United States before. Others had plans to reunite with relatives. Most were young and pursuing simple dreams, such as earning enough to build a home.
Two of the youngest were 13.
Pascual Melvin Guachiac Sipac left Sololá, Guatemala, 15 days ago to live with his dad in Houston. On Wednesday morning, the teen’s mother, Maria Sipac Coj, received a call from a local congressman telling her that her son’s body had been found in the trailer.
“He was so excited to be with his father again,” she said, weeping.
She still has his last message to her on her phone: “Mom, today they are taking me in a trailer.”
Pascual’s cousin, Juan Wilmer Tulul Tepaz, also 13, died as well.
Four people — the alleged driver of the trailer and three others allegedly associated with the human-smuggling ring — were charged late Wednesday as more details about those behind the operation, the path of the truck and who was inside it came to light.
The head of Mexico’s immigration agency, Francisco Garduño Yáñez, said the trailer originated in Texas and “did not pass through Mexico, through any of its checkpoints in the country.” He said Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, was captured on security footage driving the vehicle through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint in Encinal, Tex., shortly before 3 p.m. on Monday. The vehicle continued north, Yáñez said, before stopping in San Antonio, where it was discovered on a desolate stretch of road.
Yáñez said the truck had been packed with 67 people. He said the dead included 27 from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador.
U.S. authorities said Zamorano was found hiding in brush nearby. Yáñez said he attempted to pass himself off as a surviving migrant. He was charged with one count of “alien smuggling resulting in death.” If convicted, he could be sentenced to death.
Authorities said investigators found cellphone communications between Zamorano and Christian Martinez, 28, who has been charged with “conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death.” Two other men, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna Bilbao, 48, face weapons charges.
The tragedy has resonated across Mexico and Central America, a region where rising numbers are looking to flee violence, corruption and poverty for a life in the United States.
In the small village of San Marcos, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, Yolanda Olivares Ruiz was desperate after losing contact with her sons Yovani Valencia Olivares, 16, and Jair Valencia Olivares, 19. The brothers departed for the United States last week with their 16-year-old cousin, Misael Olivares.
The family last heard from the brothers on Monday morning, when they sent a text message saying they were waiting to be “picked up” from a warehouse in Laredo, Tex., Olivares Ruiz said. They were elated that they had made it to the United States after wading across the Rio Grande.
“They were so happy and hopeful that by next morning, they would be joining a relative who was waiting for them in Austin and start working,” Olivares Ruiz said.
Since that last message, they have not replied to the family’s increasingly desperate calls and texts.
“We don’t know anything about them. The uncertainty is killing us,” Olivares Ruiz said. “I have no tears left.”
The brothers, like many others in this town, dreamed of finding a job in the United States and making enough money to build a house and buy a car, she said. They promised to return to Mexico.
“I couldn’t say no to them because there is nothing here for them,” she said.
Olivares Ruiz sold her house to raise $10,000 for each of her sons to pay the smuggler. She said he had helped other relatives cross to the United States earlier this year, and seemed to be a kind man.
“I am sure they were inside that trailer,” said Teofilo Antonio Valencia Olivares, father of the two missing boys.
Olivares Ruiz wanted news.
“I just want to know if they are okay, and if they are lying in a hospital bed, to tell them, ‘My son, I am here with you,’” she said.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s office said it had made tentative identifications for 37 of the 53 bodies. Staff were combing through personal effects, documenting distinctive features and other evidence.
“Sometimes it’s state identifications or a voting card from their country of origin,” county spokesman Tom Peine said. “But it’s only a potential identification. We still need to verify whether the documents belong to the person or someone else.”
The medical examiner’s office is coordinating with the consulates of El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. The consulates have publicized a phone number for families to call if they suspect a loved one might be among the victims. The consulates can help find and contact families once an individual is identified.
For some families, the news arriving from Texas has brought both hope and anguish.
Alejandro López said his cousin, José Luis Vásquez Guzmán, 32, survived. But another cousin, Javier Flores López, was still unaccounted for. The pair traveled from the small village of Cerro Verde in Oaxaca, Mexico, where many residents have tested their luck in trying to reach the United States.
Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, posted a photo of Guzmán’s identification online Tuesday, saying he was one of about a dozen migrants still hospitalized.
“They are dehydrated and receiving medical attention now,” Ebrard said.
Guzmán’s father died when he was 10, and the family is poor, Alejandro López said. Guzmán briefly served in the military. Both Guzmán and Flores López were hoping to get to Ohio, where they had family.
“The options are: be a police officer, join the military,” Alejandro López said, “or go to the United States.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Losing Control: How criminal groups are transforming Mexico
The search for the disappeared points to Mexico’s darkest secrets
The sniper rifles flowing to Mexican cartels show a decade of U.S. failure
With its leader in jail, this city cowered to his will
Violent criminal groups are eroding Mexico’s authority and claiming more territory
As Mexico’s security deteriorates, the power of the military grows