KSAT’s Alicia Barrera goes inside tractor-trailer to experience dangers migrants often face at hands of smugglers

More than 2,500 migrants apprehended this weekend in Del Rio sector

The journey across the U.S.-Mexico border is a tough and dangerous trek that oftentimes turns deadly. Right now, the number of apprehensions remain at record highs across the Del Rio sector, according to Border Patrol. KSAT's Alicia Barrera was part of a group invited to Eagle Pass to get a better idea of the challenges both migrants and agents are facing daily.

EAGLE PASS, Texas – The journey across the US-Mexico border is tough and often turns deadly. However, for guides on the river, crossing migrants is a business.

“Those guides are every bit as much responsible in the smuggling network as the highest ranking member of the cartel,” said Jason Owens, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol Del Rio Sector. “It’s in our interest to try and apprehend those smugglers, those guides, because it disrupts that (criminal) network.”

“It’s very difficult to do because they stay close to the river,” Owens added. “And when we chase them into these areas, a lot of times if they go into the water, then both the life of the smuggler and the life of the agent is in danger.”

When migrants’ lives are in danger, Owen’s agents respond to the call.

“We are the ones that find the bodies in the desert burnt beyond recognition,” Owens said. “We are the ones that pull people from tractor-trailers that are clinging to life. Make no mistake -- it impacts each and every one of us.”

On Thursday morning at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Owens and his team invited a group to better understand the daily challenges migrants and agents face.

“The only ones that benefit from a lack of border security are the criminals and the smugglers,” Owens said. “We need the migrants that would make this trip to hear this message and to think twice, to not make this trip.”

It’s a trip that has cost migrants thousands of dollars and, for others, their lives.

“From the moment a person leaves their home, they need to understand that they are in harm’s way,” Owens said.

Thursday’s event began with a water rescue simulation to drag a 90-pound dummy to shore with a 75-foot rope.

“We are going to afford (the group) to experience on a very small scale some of the dangers and difficulties that they face,” Owens said. “We’re going to let you feel the currents of the Rio Grande trying to pull somebody to the shore.”

According to Border Patrol, a total of 2,561 migrants were apprehended at the border over the weekend of July 23. A total of 459 migrants were counted as “known gotaways,” which are usually the cases that result in dire situations for migrants.

“Once they cross the river, and if they make it through the harsh terrain of the desert, they find themselves stocked away in stash houses,” Owens said.

Migrants are often in stash houses for days or weeks, with little food and in a home that’s meant for a small family.

“When they leave that stash house, they may find themselves in the back of a tractor-trailer with no air conditioning, locked inside with no means of escape and no water,” Owens said.

The group, which included a consulate representative from Guatemala, was able to experience a similar situation in a controlled environment. Owens also joined the group.

“Eventually, you start seeing people succumbing to the environment,” Owens said. “You start seeing people actually start to die. And in some cases, they may be your friends and loved ones right beside you that are dying, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You have to stay beside them for hours and hours until, ultimately, you get rescued.”

It was about 11 a.m. when the simulation took place.

“Immediately when you walk in, you feel that very dense heat hit you, and imagine what it must be like to have that door shut,” Owens said.

It was 88 degrees Fahrenheit outside. The group willingly entered the tractor-trailer, and the door was closed. In four minutes and 50 seconds, temperatures reached as high as 133.

“It’s incredibly hot (in here),” Owens said. “I’m already covered in sweat.”

According to medical trauma professionals present at the event, migrants who survive are likely to suffer from chronic illnesses due to the harsh elements they’re exposed to during their journey.

“When we think about the long-term toll and the impacts, it is real,” Owens said. “And it’s something that we need to pay attention to because it’s not getting better.”

Through these security awareness events, Owens hopes migrants think twice about putting their hands and money in the hands of smugglers.

About the Authors:

Alicia Barrera is a KSAT 12 News reporter and anchor. She is also a co-host of the streaming show KSAT News Now. Alicia is a first-generation Mexican-American, fluent in both Spanish and English with a bachelor's degree from Our Lady of the Lake University. She enjoys reading books, traveling solo across Mexico and spending time with family.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.