Dying to Cross

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 3/16/2010
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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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.

Table of Contents

Preface xv
When the Doors Opened
They Came from Far Away
The Coyotes
Inside The Trailer
The Little Boy
The Dead and the Survivors
Karla and the Trial
Last Words


Dying to Cross
The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History

Chapter One

When the Door Opened

It smelled of death.

When truck driver Tyrone Williams opened the door tohis trailer on the morning of Wednesday, May 14, 2003, henever would have imagined that he would find so many peopleinside. Or that several of them would be dead. Surprise can besuch an unwelcome visitor.

As he pulled the lever and opened the door to the trailerof his eighteen-wheeler, he had to move quickly in order toavoid 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 allit took to realize that something was very wrong. Very, verywrong.

Inside the trailer, dozens of people were strewn across itsmetal flooring: some were unconscious, while others merelyseemed to be sleeping. Seventeen were dead, and two morewould die in the hospital later that night. At that moment, however,there was no way to know exactly who had perished andwho 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. Highway77 in Victoria, south Texas.

There was no light inside the trailer, and there were noflashlights handy, either. The only light the panicked grouphad to penetrate the thick cover of night was the yellow glow ofthe Texan moon. The lights of a faraway gas station filtered inthrough one of the trailer doors, creating a thin, whitish linealong the horizon. Inside, the dim shadows seemed to suggestpiles of sweating flesh and broken wills. Not everyone jumpedout of the trailer. Walking like zombies, some people foundtheir way to the door of the truck and, with difficulty, loweredthemselves down the two or three steps that separated themfrom the ground. The few people who still found themselveswith a bit of strength left in them helped the others out of thetruck. When the doors were opened, some had regained consciousness,and with painstaking effort dragged themselves towardthe doors. Those who remained inside the trailer scarcelymoved. Some were still as stone.

We will never know exactly how many people were travelinginside that trailer. If we count the nineteen who died andthe fifty-four who survived (and who were then detained bythe police), we know that there were at least seventy-three.Of the nineteen who died, sixteen were Mexican, and the otherthree were from El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.Of the fifty-four survivors who were identified, thirtytwowere from Mexico, fourteen were from Honduras, sevenwere from El Salvador, and one was from Nicaragua.

But how many escaped? There may have been eighty peopleinside 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 thatsome of the younger, stronger survivors managed to escape oncethe doors were opened. They wouldn't have been able to helpmuch if they had stayed. They didn't really know each other asit was, and their staying would've only put them at risk. Theimmigrants inside that trailer had not formed strong bonds offriendship, and the majority of them were not united by familyties, either. This was not a primary concern for them, then, andif they managed to escape, they could skip out on the last installmentof the coyote's fee. At the end of the day, even theywanted something for nothing.

Tuesday, May 13, was one of the hottest days in Texasthat spring season in 2003. Shortly after noon, the thermometershit 91 degrees Fahrenheit, one degree shy of the record forthat date. It didn't rain at all that day, so the heat held steadythroughout the night. The worst, however, was not the heat, butthe humidity. The humidity and heat are so intense in that partof Texas, that it is easy to perspire through a shirt after walking ablock. Clothes stick to one's body like adhesive tape. When thetrailer 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 hotrainstorm.

The weather conditions turned that trailer into a sauna. Thehigh daytime temperatures, the humidity, and the heat generatedby so many dozens of bodies pressed against each otherturned the trailer into a deathtrap. There is no way to knowexactly how high the temperatures rose inside the trailer, but the Associated Press, citing local authorities, suggested that it mayhave actually hit 173 degrees Fahrenheit. There is of course noway of knowing for sure.

The trailer was hermetically sealed shut, for a very simple,commercial reason. This type of trailer often transports perishablegoods: vegetables, fruits, meat, and other food items. Theless air that enters the inside of the trailer, the longer the merchandiseremains intact, and the farther these goods can betransported. These trailers are not outfitted to transport humanbeings.

The walls, the ceiling, and the floors were all lined with onelayer of aluminum and then another layer of insulation. Thisinner structure ensures that the temperature remains constantinside the trailer, even if there are shifts in the outside temperature.Even if the immigrants had been able to cut through thesetwo layers, they would have then found themselves facing thesteel shell on the trailer's exterior. It was impossible for thetrailer to be opened from the inside. Once inside, there was noway out ...

Dying to Cross
The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History
. Copyright © by Jorge Ramos. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History by Jorge Ramos
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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