Federal, state and local authorities in Texas are searching for a tanker truck days after a 911 caller in the San Antonio area reported dozens of people were trapped inside it, offering a glimpse into the difficulties authorities face in investigating human trafficking.
In the recording of the Monday emergency call obtained by The Associated Press, a man can be heard pleading for help. The caller says there are an estimated 80 people inside the truck’s tank — typically used to haul liquids or gases that can be hazardous — and that they can’t breathe.
“We are dying in here,” the caller says in Spanish, telling a dispatcher that the white tanker truck was parked and that he could hear passing cars. People can be heard gasping and screaming in the background. Then, the call dropped.
Javier Salazar, the sheriff of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, told the AP on Thursday that all he wants now is to find out if the people survived the trip and made it to their final destinations. Salazar said he is not interested in prosecuting the people who were inside the tank, because they’re victims. But he wants to hold those who trapped them accountable.
“That is the kind of thing as a first responder you lose sleep over,” Salazar said. “You are just wondering ‘are there people that were dumped in our county and just waiting to be found?’”
San Antonio police also are investigating but declined comment, saying they had given the information they received to the federal Department of Homeland Security.
A spokesperson for Homeland Security said in a statement that its investigations division is “looking into an incident along with local law enforcement partners regarding a possible human smuggling event” and that no further details could be released.
Salazar said one of his deputies was able to locate surveillance camera footage of a business where the call was traced. The business — along Interstate 35, which stretches southwest from San Antonio to the border with Mexico — is not involved in the criminal investigation, Salazar said, but provided the video.
The surveillance footage shows a tanker matching the caller’s description travelling with a black pickup truck. Both stop at the side of the road around midnight and a person can be seen walking between the vehicles. Salazar said they are confident these are the vehicles in question but do not have specifics on the make or model.
Instances of human trafficking happen thousands of times a day nationwide, Salazar said, and traffickers “herd these people like cattle.”
“The only difference is in this instance, we were able to get a glimpse because this gentleman was able to place a call,” Salazar said.
In 2017, nine people died and 20 were hospitalized in dire condition, many with extreme dehydration and heatstroke, after being crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer found parked outside a Walmart in San Antonio. The driver was arrested and authorities at the time called the case an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong.
“We’re looking at a human-trafficking crime,” said San Antonio Police Chief William McManus after the 2017 finding, calling that situation “a horrific tragedy.”
Salazar asks that anyone who may have seen the incident after 10 p.m. on Monday or recorded it on dash camera footage to come forward.
Acacia Coronado, who reported from Austin, is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.