On May 14, 2003, a familiar risk-filled journey, taken by hopeful Mexican immigrants attempting to illegally cross into the United States, took a tragic turn. Inside a sweltering truck abandoned in Texas, authorities found at least 74 people packed into a "human heap of desperation." After months of investigation, a 25-year-old Honduran-born woman named Karla Chavez was found responsible for leading the human trafficking cell that led to this grisly tragedy in which 19 people died.
Through interviews with survivors who had the courage to share their stories and conversations with the victims' families, and in examining the political implications of the incident for both U.S. and Mexican immigration policies, Jorge Ramos tells the story of one of the most heartbreaking episodes of our nation's turbulent history of immigration.
On the night of May 14, 2003, on a highway outside of Victoria, Texas, 19 people died of asphyxiation, dehydration and heat exposure inside of a locked, double-insulated trailer truck. The dead were among 73 Latin Americans who were trying to start a new life in the United States and who had paid a coyote to smuggle them into Houston. In this dramatic recounting of the headline-grabbing events, Emmy Award-winning Noticiero Univision anchorman Ramos weaves together interviews with the survivors and state officials, reports from police and government agencies, court records, medical research and his own speculations to tell the story from various points of view. Ramos prefaces his book by telling readers that the "facts presented here have not been modified for literary or any other kind of dramatic effect," which is to say readers should not expect the narrative unity of a true-crime novel. Nonetheless, he has crafted a page-turning history, ordering vignettes, testimonials and facts to create suspense at every turn. Scenes of dramatic desperation unfold: men drinking their own urine, supplicants calling out to Satan as well as to God, hands beating out the trailer's tail lights in an effort to circulate air. Unfortunately, these details create the bulk of the book's impact and overshadow Ramos's other prefatory promise: to make plain the culpability of U.S. and Mexican immigration policies in these deaths-an interesting argument that isn't fully developed in this book.
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June 12, 2006
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Excerpt from Dying to Cross by Jorge Ramos
When the Door Opened
It smelled of death.
When truck driver Tyrone Williams opened the door to his trailer on the morning of Wednesday, May 14, 2003, he never would have imagined that he would find so many people inside. Or that several of them would be dead. Surprise can be such an unwelcome visitor.
As he pulled the lever and opened the door to the trailer of his eighteen-wheeler, he had to move quickly in order to avoid being crushed by the swell of humanity that spilled out, gasping for breath. Some of the bodies simply fell to the ground, motionless, not seeming to breathe at all. One glance was all it took to realize that something was very wrong. Very, very wrong.
Inside the trailer, dozens of people were strewn across its metal flooring: some were unconscious, while others merely seemed to be sleeping. Seventeen were dead, and two more would die in the hospital later that night. At that moment, however, there was no way to know exactly who had perished and who was on the brink of death. It was two in the morning, and there wasn't a soul on that rural road, just off U.S. Highway 77 in Victoria, south Texas.
There was no light inside the trailer, and there were no flashlights handy, either. The only light the panicked group had to penetrate the thick cover of night was the yellow glow of the Texan moon. The lights of a faraway gas station filtered in through one of the trailer doors, creating a thin, whitish line along the horizon. Inside, the dim shadows seemed to suggest piles of sweating flesh and broken wills. Not everyone jumped out of the trailer. Walking like zombies, some people found their way to the door of the truck and, with difficulty, lowered themselves down the two or three steps that separated them from the ground. The few people who still found themselves with a bit of strength left in them helped the others out of the truck. When the doors were opened, some had regained consciousness, and with painstaking effort dragged themselves toward the doors. Those who remained inside the trailer scarcely moved. Some were still as stone.
We will never know exactly how many people were traveling inside that trailer. If we count the nineteen who died and the fifty-four who survived (and who were then detained by the police), we know that there were at least seventy-three. Of the nineteen who died, sixteen were Mexican, and the other three were from El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. Of the fifty-four survivors who were identified, thirtytwo were from Mexico, fourteen were from Honduras, seven were from El Salvador, and one was from Nicaragua.
But how many escaped? There may have been eighty people inside the trailer. Maybe more. Some news reports suggested that there may have been up to one hundred. We don't know. We will never know. What is very probable, however, is that some of the younger, stronger survivors managed to escape once the doors were opened. They wouldn't have been able to help much if they had stayed. They didn't really know each other as it was, and their staying would've only put them at risk. The immigrants inside that trailer had not formed strong bonds of friendship, and the majority of them were not united by family ties, either. This was not a primary concern for them, then, and if they managed to escape, they could skip out on the last installment of the coyote's fee. At the end of the day, even they wanted something for nothing.
Tuesday, May 13, was one of the hottest days in Texas that spring season in 2003. Shortly after noon, the thermometers hit 91 degrees Fahrenheit, one degree shy of the record for that date. It didn't rain at all that day, so the heat held steady throughout the night. The worst, however, was not the heat, but the humidity. The humidity and heat are so intense in that part of Texas, that it is easy to perspire through a shirt after walking a block. Clothes stick to one's body like adhesive tape. When the trailer doors were opened at that early dawn hour on May 14, the temperature had gone down a bit to 74 degrees Fahrenheit. But the relative humidity, at 93 percent made it feel like a hot rainstorm.
The weather conditions turned that trailer into a sauna. The high daytime temperatures, the humidity, and the heat generated by so many dozens of bodies pressed against each other turned the trailer into a deathtrap. There is no way to know exactly how high the temperatures rose inside the trailer, but the Associated Press, citing local authorities, suggested that it may have actually hit 173 degrees Fahrenheit. There is of course no way of knowing for sure.
The trailer was hermetically sealed shut, for a very simple, commercial reason. This type of trailer often transports perishable goods: vegetables, fruits, meat, and other food items. The less air that enters the inside of the trailer, the longer the merchandise remains intact, and the farther these goods can be transported. These trailers are not outfitted to transport human beings.
The walls, the ceiling, and the floors were all lined with one layer of aluminum and then another layer of insulation. This inner structure ensures that the temperature remains constant inside the trailer, even if there are shifts in the outside temperature. Even if the immigrants had been able to cut through these two layers, they would have then found themselves facing the steel shell on the trailer's exterior. It was impossible for the trailer to be opened from the inside. Once inside, there was no way out ...