Eighteen suspected illegal immigrants were found alive on Friday in and near a sweltering tractor-trailer in southern Texas, a few kilometers from where 17 people from Mexico and Central America were found dead on Wednesday after being trapped in a similar trailer.
It was not clear how long the new group had been in the truck, which was found at a rest stop on US 59 after a motorist had called the police. The immigrants appeared to be in relatively good condition. The driver of the truck, whose name was not released, was arrested.
The driver in the first case, Tyrone Williams, 32, of Schenectady, New York, made a second court appearance here on charges of conspiracy to smuggle, transport and conceal illegal immigrants.
The toll in the first incident climbed to 19 on Friday, with the death of an unidentified immigrant in a hospital in Victoria. The 18th victim, who was removed from the truck in full cardiac arrest, died at another hospital. Six survivors remained hospitalized, and 49 were brought here as material witnesses against Williams and at least three other people.
"We are continuing to try to identify all of the different conspirators that are involved in both gathering the individuals from Central America and Mexico and then smuggling them across the border," the US attorney for the Southern District of Texas, Michael Shelby, said on Friday afternoon.
Shelby said investigators would try to find "the employers who were drawing these people into the country with the promise of a job."
He said a decision had not been made on seeking the death penalty for Williams, who told investigators that he had been paid US$2,500 to transport the migrants from Harlingen, near the border with Mexico.
The prosecutor said Attorney General John Ashcroft was concerned with the matter.
"He did call me and expressed his keen interest in the case, asked me to keep him informed on a daily basis, literally, and told me that the highest levels of the Department of Justice here and in Mexico were interested in the prosecution," Shelby said.
Law enforcement officials said they were grappling with an increase in illegal immigrants who travel in smugglers' trucks and boxcars.
"The tractor-trailer vehicle is the predominant mode of travel being used to transport undocumented aliens from the US-Mexico border area," Steven Greenwell, an agent with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wrote in the complaint against Williams.
Reports of immigrants crossing the border and making their way north through Texas arrive almost every day. Ten immigrants were found in a pickup on Friday in Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston.
On Thursday near the Texas-New Mexico line, 17 people were found in a rail container car. They appeared to be healthy, although officials estimated that the temperature in the car was around 40?C.
In the truck incident on Friday, two sheriff's deputies responded to a call about suspicious-looking people at the rest stop 9km northeast of Victoria. The deputies detained the driver on suspicion of smuggling and alerted immigration officials. Two of the 18 immigrants, both women, were treated for heat exhaustion at a hospital and released.