Texas federal, state and local authorities are searching for a tanker truck days after a 911 caller in the San Antonio area reported that dozens of people were trapped inside, offering insight into the hardships that face the authorities to investigate human trafficking.
In the recording of Monday’s emergency call obtained by The Associated Press, a man can be heard calling for help. The caller says that there are an estimated 80 people inside the truck’s tank, which are generally used to transport liquids or gases that can be dangerous, and they cannot breathe.
“We are dying here,” says the caller in Spanish, telling a dispatcher that the white tanker was parked and that he could hear passing cars. People can be heard gasping and screaming in the background. Then the call was cut off.
Javier Salazar, the sheriff for Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, told the AP on Thursday that all he wants now is to find out if 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 are victims. But he wants to hold those who caught them accountable.
“That’s the kind of thing that makes you lose sleep as a lifeguard,” Salazar said. “You’re wondering ‘are there people who were abandoned in our county and waiting to be found?'”
San Antonio police are also investigating, but declined to comment, saying they had turned over the information they received to the federal Department of Homeland Security.
A Homeland Security spokesman said in a statement that its investigations division is “investigating an incident together with local law enforcement partners regarding a possible human trafficking event” and that no further details could be provided.
Salazar said one of his aides was able to locate images from a business surveillance camera where the call was traced. The business, along Interstate 35, which runs southwest from San Antonio to the Mexican border, is not involved in the criminal investigation, Salazar said, but provided the video.
Surveillance footage shows a tanker truck matching the caller’s description and traveling with a black van. They both stop on the side of the road around midnight and one person can be seen walking between the vehicles. Salazar said they are sure these are the vehicles in question, but have no details on the make or model.
Human trafficking cases occur thousands of times a day across the country, Salazar said, and traffickers “herded these people like cattle.”
“The only difference is that in this case we were able to take a look because this man was able to make a call,” Salazar said.
In 2017, nine people died and 20 were hospitalized in dire conditions, many of them with extreme dehydration and heat stroke, after being crammed into a sweltering truck trailer that was 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 are facing a crime of human trafficking,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said after the 2017 discovery, calling the situation “a terrible tragedy.”
Salazar calls for anyone who saw the incident after 10 p.m. Monday or who recorded it on dash cam footage to come forward.