“She didn’t deserve to die like this:” Mom who lost her daughter in trailer tragedy visits site in San Antonio

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SAN ANTONIO — The woman wearing a black blouse, jeans and sunglasses resting on top of her head walked toward the dirt road between a waste management company and the train tracks on the city’s outskirts, the place where an employee of a nearby business had found the bodies of dozens of migrants inside a trailer four days earlier.

She was accompanied by a family member who lives in the area and Alex Salgado, a Houston-based immigrant rights advocate, who held an umbrella over her head to cover her from the blazing July sun.

The trailer had already been hauled away. So she sat on a chair in front of a growing memorial adorned with plush teddy bears, flowers and gallons of water laid below a long line of 6-foot-tall crosses with the names of the victims of the nation’s deadliest migrant smuggling tragedy.

As artist Roberto Márquez hung a Honduran flag on one of the crosses he’d erected on this semi-rural road, the woman rose from her seat and rested her hand on it. The cross was embossed with her daughter’s name: Adela Betulia Ramírez Quezada.

Gloria Quezada began to cry uncontrollably.

Onlookers who had come to pay their respects to the dead turned at the sound of her sobbing. Soon many of them wiped tears as Quezada continued to cry.

“I felt destroyed, to know that my daughter’s body was there,” Quezada said in an interview later that day. “I imagined her without air, without being able to breathe, knowing she left Earth. I imagined throwing myself on her, being able to hug her, but knowing that I can only imagine her now.

“The reality is she’s gone, and the only thing left now is the cross with her name,” she said. “My little girl is gone.”

Quezada’s 27-year-old daughter was one of 53 people who died of asphyxiation and heat exposure in an 18-wheeler trailer abandoned in southwest San Antonio on a sweltering day. The youngest victim was 13. They were from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Four men have been arrested in connection to the deaths, including the 45-year-old driver, Homero Zamorano Jr. of Brownsville, who is charged in federal court with one count of involvement in alien smuggling resulting in death.

The deaths underscore the perils migrants face and the sacrifices they are willing to take to escape the effects of crime, endemic poverty, corruption and climate change in their home countries. And they are attempting to cross the southwest border in record numbers.

In the past fiscal year 2021, immigration officials had a record-breaking 1.7 million encounters with migrants at the Southwest border. Immigration agents are also removing migrants in record numbers, in most cases without allowing them to request asylum. Since March 2020, agents have invoked Title 42, an emergency health order meant to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, more than 2 million times.

That’s led large numbers of migrants to make multiple attempts to cross the border — the percentage of migrants apprehended more than once has jumped from 7% to 27% in the past three years. Others pay smugglers to get them across the border, by whatever means necessary; every year migrants die attempting to swim across the Rio Grande, hiking through deserts and scrublands without enough water — or suffocating in the back of an 18-wheeler.

About 650 people died crossing the Southwest border in 2021, more than in any other year since the International Organization for Migration, a part of the United Nations, began tracking the data in 2014.

“The situation at our border has reached its limit, evidenced by the death of more than 50 migrants in San Antonio and others who perished recently in the irrigation canals in El Paso,” said Fernando García, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights based in El Paso. “Frankly, this is unsustainable.”

Like all migrants, Quezada knew those risks, but she said she wasn’t worried when her eldest daughter decided to make the long trek from Honduras to the U.S. Three generations of the family had safely immigrated to the U.S., starting with Quezada’s mother, who moved to Los Angeles three decades ago.

Quezada made the trip a year ago with her youngest daughter, who was 12 at the time, after she says she was threatened at gunpoint in Honduras and saw her home flooded twice by hurricanes in 2020.

She said she crossed the border from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas into South Texas and requested asylum in the U.S.; she was allowed to stay in the country while her asylum case is pending.

After a year apart, her middle daughter, 17-year-old Kelly, also made the trip in June and joined her in California, where Quezada was living with her sister. Soon after, Adela told her mother that she wanted to come to California, too. Adela never shared any details with her mother about how she was migrating.

Quezada, 44, said her daughter’s voice had been full of optimism about their upcoming reunion.

“She told me that together we would get ahead in life, that we would have a bright future,” Quezada said.

Gloria Quezada on July 1, 2022, visiting the memorial site where her daughter Adela Betulia Ramírez Quezada, 27, died the previous month in an abandoned tractor-trailer in San Antonio. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Gloria Quezada on July 1, 2022, visiting the memorial site where her daughter Adela Betulia Ramírez Quezada, 27, died the previous month in an abandoned tractor-trailer in San Antonio. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Daughter had to drop out of high school

Quezada was 17 and living in a town near Hondura’s Caribbean coast when Adela was born. She had already broken up with her boyfriend when she found out she was pregnant, she said. For six years, Quezada raised her daughter as a single mother, with help from her grandmother.

Quezada said she didn’t know how to raise a child and fell into a depression. She said she started drinking to cope with the struggles of being a single mother. Tired of being hungover and depressed, Quezada said one day she fell to her knees and prayed to God, asking him to help her. She joined a local church and became a born-again Christian when she was 22 years old.

As a baby, Adela’s favorite TV show was “Teletubbies,” the British children’s program. Her grandmother shipped four plush Teletubbies from Los Angeles to Honduras when she was a toddler and she wouldn’t let them out of her sight, usually dragging them around the house by their antennas, Quezada said.

Shortly after Quezada started to attend church, she met the man who would become her husband — when they married, he adopted Adela as his own. Adela immediately saw him as her own father, Quezada said.

Five years after they married, Kelly was born, and four years later the couple had another daughter, Keren.

Quezada worked selling Marlen Lamur skin care products door to door. Her husband worked making furniture. Between them, they had enough money to buy food but never enough to buy their own home. Before Quezada left Honduras, the family lived in Quezada’s mother’s house.

As a child, Adela’s dream was to be a doctor or a nurse. She would take her play medical toys and pretend to take the vital signs of her sisters or parents when they got sick, Quezada said.

Adela fell one year short of graduating from high school, Quezada said, because the family didn’t have enough money to continue buying school supplies. She set her sights on being a cosmetologist — but again the family couldn’t save enough money for her to attend a trade school.

Quezada would buy her daughters rings and necklaces made of stainless steel. She couldn’t afford silver or gold jewelry, but Adela didn’t mind.

“She once told me, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to help you pay for things,’” Quezada said.

After dropping out of school, Adela helped raise her sisters and helped her mom by cooking for the family.

“She was very sweet,” Quezada said. “‘She would tell me, ‘You’re my pride and joy. If God could let me pick someone else to be my mother, I’d pick the same mother I have now.’”

Adela started to work wherever she could find a job, Quezada said. She sold clothing at a local store. Her latest job was working as a receptionist for a doctor in town who was inundated with patients dealing with COVID-19 symptoms.

“It’s either survive or die”

Quezada said she was shopping in her hometown in 2016 when a truck pulled over and the driver pointed a gun at her. The man looked nervous and dropped the gun, Quezada said. He eventually picked up the gun and drove off without saying a word.

Quezada said her hometown was safe when she was growing up, but as time has passed, more people have turned to crime. She said it also became common for men to sexually harrass women on public transporation or as they walked around town.

Then Category 4 hurricanes Eta and Iota struck Honduras in November 2020, flooding the family’s home and ruining their beds. For a few months, they lived with neighbors whose houses weren’t as badly damaged until they could make their own home livable again, she said.

That’s when Quezada decided to leave Honduras. She said she was tired of the insecurity in her hometown and not having enough money to help their daughters finish school and achieve their dreams.

Quezada’s husband didn’t want to go with her. She said they had begun having marital problems, which got worse after they weren’t able to repair the hurricane damage to their house. They agreed it was best to separate, Quezada said.

She asked her three daughters to come with her and join their grandmother in the Los Angeles area. But Adela and Kelly, the two oldest, wanted to stay behind with their father.

The night before Quezada left for the U.S. in February 2021, the family had one last meal together: pizza. The next morning, Quezada hugged her eldest daughter. Adela told her youngest sister to take care of their mother.

Quezada, her sister and her nieces joined a group of a couple dozen migrants from a nearby town who were heading to the U.S. To enter Guatemala, Quezada told immigration officials she and her daughter were visiting a friend in the capital. The group, which shrank to 15 after some were not allowed to enter Guatemala, crossed the country and swam a river into Chiapas, Mexico.

In Mexico, the group hitched rides and took buses through the country, sleeping in the streets at night. They reached Tamaulipas a month after leaving Honduras, she said.

In March 2021, Quezada and Keren swam the Rio Grande into Texas and immediately surrendered to a U.S. Border Patrol agent, she said. Quezada’s sister and nieces were detained and eventually released into the U.S. Quezada and her daughter were expelled back to Mexico under Title 42. Days later, they swam across the river again, only to be immediately expelled a second time.

For four months, Quezada and her daughter lived in a shelter in Tamaulipas. A local organization gave her the number of a lawyer who helped her file for a humanitarian exemption to Title 42 — which was granted in July 2021.

Quezada said she doesn’t know why she got the exemption. But it’s not uncommon for Border Patrol agents to give exemptions to migrants who are traveling with children or are in need of medical attention.

After she and her daughter settled into her sister’s home in Lancaster, a city north of Los Angeles, Quezada found a job as a cook at a Salvadoran restaurant making pupusas, enrolled her daughter into high school and hired a lawyer to help her with her asylum case.

After a year, the two daughters who stayed behind started missing their mother. Kelly left first, tracing her mother’s route with a small group of women and their children. When they got to the Texas-Mexico border in June, she swam across the Rio Grande and turned herself in to immigration officials, who released her to rejoin her mother — unaccompanied minors are exempt from Title 42.

Not long after her sister left, Adela decided to make the trek as well. Quezada asked her who she was coming with, what route was she taking and if she hired a coyote — a people smuggler. Adela repeatedly told her mother not to worry about any of that, Quezada said.

“After seeing us come, she must’ve had the courage to decide to come,” Quezada said.

Mourners visited a memorial on July 1, 2022, at the site in San Antonio where dozens of migrants were found after dying in an abandoned tractor-trailer. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Mourners visited a memorial on July 1, 2022, at the site in San Antonio where dozens of migrants were found after dying in an abandoned tractor-trailer. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Relatives in Honduras break the news

On the morning of June 27, before she headed to work, Quezada received a call from Adela. She was already in the U.S. and told her mother that they would see each other soon.

“I went to work really happy that morning, thinking we’d be together soon,” Quezada said.

The next day, family members in Honduras called Quezada to ask if Adela was among the victims in the 18-wheeler in San Antonio. Quezada hadn’t heard about the migrants in the trailer, but she told them she had talked to Adela the day before and she was confident her daughter wasn’t in the trailer.

About 3 p.m. that day, the family called Quezada again while she was at work. This time, they raised the volume on the television and put Quezada on speakerphone as a TV news reporter in Honduras read the names of some of the victims.

When the reporter read out her daughter’s name, Quezada froze. Then she began to cry.

“I couldn’t believe that she was among the people in the trailer,” she said. “I couldn’t process it.”

Two days after the tragedy, she flew into San Antonio to speak with officials from the medical examiner’s office and the Hondoran consulate. The medical examiner’s office wouldn’t let her see her daughter’s body before an autopsy was done, she said, but they showed her two items they found with her body: a piece of paper with Quezada’s California address and a ring with a small diamond.

Quezada recognized the stainless steel ring; she’d given it to her daughter when she was a teenager.

She said she wants her daughter to be buried in Honduras; if she loses her asylum case, she knows she won’t be able to visit a grave in the U.S.

She also wants to hold a vigil for her daughter in San Antonio so she and the rest of the family in the U.S. can say goodbye properly. But if they do so, the Honduran government has said it won’t pay to send Adela’s body back to Honduras; Quezada said a government official told her that holding a ceremony in the U.S. proves that the family has enough money to repatriate the body themselves.

The family has started a GoFundMe account seeking $5,000 to cover the funeral costs in Honduras.

“She didn’t deserve to die like this,” Quezada said. “She wasn’t a woman who would get into trouble — all she wanted to do was be with me.”