A “cloned” 18-wheeler made it easy for smugglers to pass through the border, say state officials vowing to crack down

A sweltering tractor-trailer was found near Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio this week. Four men have been charged with human smuggling in the deaths of 53 migrants who were inside. (Nick Wagner For The Texas Tribune, Nick Wagner For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The right paint job and a copied federal ID number on the door.

Recommended Videos

That’s all it took for smugglers to commit identity theft of a tractor-trailer, passing it off as a hauler from a legitimate trucking company as it crossed the Texas-Mexico border — leading to the deaths of 53 migrants in San Antonio this week in what federal officials say is the most deadly migrant smuggling case in U.S. history.

Fewer than 100 cases of physical identity theft of big rigs are reported nationally to federal trucking regulators every year, but it’s difficult to pin down how many more of these so-called truck clones are disappearing into the fleet of an estimated 3.5 million rigs on U.S. highways every day, officials and industry experts say.

“How would you even know your truck was being cloned unless something bad happened?” said John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association. “They can confirm the number that are caught, but there’s no way to confirm how many are out there.”

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Wednesday that once a smuggler has assumed a legitimate truck’s identity, it’s easy for them to slip through border inspections. But as a result of the recent tragedy, his agency will focus on cracking down on the clones at the new state inspection checkpoints announced by Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday. Officials declined to say where the checkpoints will be, saying they didn’t want to give away their positioning to criminals, but noted they would not be stationed at the ports of entry.

“They’re using cloned trucks and vehicles that appear to be legitimate, that look like they’re legitimate, that’s easy to pass through the particular checkpoint, but I can assure you our troopers will be able to identify whether they’re legitimate or not and take action at that point in time,” McCraw said.

Texas authorities did not respond to requests seeking the number of reports of truck identity theft annually in Texas.

The truck in San Antonio that transported the migrants had the same red color and identifying numbers from the federal and state departments of transportation as a Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting vehicle, the Alamo-based trucking company’s owners said.

Four men are in custody in connection with the deaths, including the driver and two men found at a Bexar County address connected to the truck’s actual registration, officials said.

The truck’s driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, made his first appearance in federal court in San Antonio on Thursday, and he was informed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth S. Chestney he faced a charge of transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death. If convicted, he could face a sentence of up to life in prison or the death penalty. The judge set additional hearings for Wednesday.

According to an affidavit presented in court, local police detained Zamorano shortly after they arrived at the site of the tractor-trailer late Monday. Officers recovered his cellphone, hat and wallet, which included his photo ID.

U.S. Border Patrol later reviewed surveillance footage from an immigration checkpoint near Laredo that showed the tractor-trailer — along with its driver, Zamorano. His public defender, Jose I. Gonzalez-Falla, did not respond to a request for comment.

Another man, Christian Martinez, 28, has been charged with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death. He appears to have played a critical role coordinating with Zamorano. An affidavit indicated that Martinez exchanged multiple text messages with Zamorano on Monday. At 12:17 p.m., he shared a photo showing a truck load manifest and at 12:44 p.m., he shared GPS coordinates that led to an address in Laredo.

Martinez sent Zamorano several more text messages that afternoon, the San Antonio Express-News reported. At 1:40 p.m., he inquired “wya,” or “where are you at?” At 3:18 p.m., he asked Zamorano to call him. The final message was at 6:17 p.m.: “Wya, bro.”

So far, no more details have emerged about the truck they used. Commercial truckers are required to have their tractors and companies registered with a state transportation identification number and a U.S. Department of Transportation ID number, which are displayed on the outside of the trucks.

Those are separate from the unique vehicle identification number, which is known as a VIN and acts like a fingerprint for cars, that all vehicles get when they are manufactured.

Vehicle identity theft can include copying a truck’s simple appearance or using its assigned USDOT number without authorization, as happened in the San Antonio case, or it can involve the forging of titles and VINs and other fraud.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued an alert last month to companies about identity theft and other fraud, saying that the agency “has been made aware that some motor carrier identities have been compromised” and that the crime impacts “the ability of the victim carrier to operate [and] allows fraudulent and poor performing drivers and vehicles to continue to operate.”

But physically copying a legitimate rig is not a new issue, federal traffic enforcement officials say. The FMCSA estimates that about 75 trucks are reported nationally each year with copied or stolen state and federal ID numbers, out of about 660,000 motor carriers in the agency’s system, officials said.

Esparza said he thinks that number is likely a significant undercount. He added that the tactic appears to be extremely effective.

“Like most thieves and ne’er-do-wells, they’re not very high tech,” he said. “In the most rudimentary way of describing it, you take a picture of a truck that’s driving by or that’s parked and steal its DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] or USDOT number, and falsify that on a separate truck because you’re trying to do something bad, you’re trying to cover some tracks.”

Abbott held a press conference Wednesday blaming President Joe Biden for lax rules that allowed the truck to pass through undetected at an inland Border Patrol checkpoint and announced that Texas will add new checkpoints for trucks entering the state from Mexico.

DPS “will create and implement a checkpoint strategy beginning immediately where they will begin targeting trucks like the one that was used where these people perished,” Abbott said.

Officials have not said whether the people hiding in the truck were in it at the time it passed the checkpoint, or if they were picked up at a stash house or remote meeting spot after crossing separately — a common practice in smuggling operations.

Border Patrol checkpoints are equipped with X-ray machines, K-9 units trained to detect humans, license plate readers and weight sensors, among other technology — and a truck filled with people would have triggered a closer inspection, Esparza said.

But if it’s empty, if the driver has a current commercial license, and the truck’s ID or appearance doesn’t trigger any red flags, it’s entirely possible for a cloned vehicle to pass a light inspection, Esparza said.

McCraw said the agency would move some troopers from stations at the international bridges to the new checkpoints and bring in “strike teams” to expand commercial vehicle enforcement.

DPS officials did not respond to requests for details on how troopers would be verifying the identity of each truck.

Authorities can verify whether a transportation ID on the side of a tractor-trailer is legitimate by comparing it to the truck’s VIN. A common way they do this is by plugging a diagnostic unit into the truck’s engine computer, which will transmit the VIN created when the vehicle was manufactured, and then comparing it to the VIN of the vehicle associated with the transportation ID in federal records.

Verification of the ID number would likely be done during a thorough inspection, which is often triggered when a truck is flagged as suspicious either at a checkpoint or on the street, Esparza said.

But it would seem a difficult task to manually check the ID numbers of every truck on the road, Esparza said.

Esparza says he hopes that the issue doesn’t become “just a political affair” and that a solution can be found that avoids more tragedy.

“It’s just horrifying,” he said. “It’s hard to think of anything other than the people and how they died in the back of that terribly hot truck.”

Sewell Chan contributed to this story.

Join us at The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, and hear from 300+ speakers shaping the future of Texas including Joe Straus, Jen Psaki, Joaquin Castro, Mayra Flores and many others. See all speakers announced to date and buy tickets.

Recommended Videos