MEXICO CITY — The two cousins returned to the tiny, hardscrabble hamlet they grew up in in southern Mexico about two weeks ago to say goodbye in what has become a rite of passage for generations of migrants from their remote, impoverished mountainous region in Oaxaca state.
After the farewells, Javier Flores López and Jose Luis Vásquez Guzmán began their trek north to the U.S-Mexico border and toward their final destination in Ohio, where construction jobs and other work awaited.
Flores López is now missing, his family said, while Vásquez Guzmán is hospitalized in San Antonio after surviving stifling heat in a truck-trailer near the Texas city that killed at least 53 people in the deadliest smuggling episode ever in the U.S.
It was not the first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border for Flores López, now in his mid-30s, who left Cerro Verde years ago and went to Ohio, where his father and a brother live.
He was back home to see his wife and three small children briefly, said a cousin, Francisco López Hernández. Vásquez Guzmán, 32, decided to go with his cousin for his first trip across the border and hoped to reach his oldest brother who is in Ohio as well.
While everyone knew the risks, countless people from Cerro Verde had made it safely across the U.S.-Mexico border with the help of smugglers, so it came as a shock, López Hernández said, to learn Vásquez Guzmán was among 67 people packed into the truck found abandoned Monday near auto salvage yards. The family believes Flores López was, too, but they are still awaiting confirmation.
The driver along with two other men from Mexico remained in custody as the investigation continues.
Officials had potential identifications on 37 of the victims as of Wednesday morning, pending verification with authorities in other countries, according to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The dead include 27 people from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador, said Francisco Garduño, chief of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute.
Identifying them has been challenging because some were found without identification documents and in one case carried a stolen ID. Remote villages, like Cerro Verde, have little to no phone service to reach family members and fingerprint data has to be shared and matched by the governments involved.
Cerro Verde is a community of about 60 people that has largely been abandoned by the young. Those who remain work earning meager livings weaving sun hats, mats, brooms and other items from palm leaves. Many live on as little as 30 pesos a day (less than $2).
“The truth is people leave here out of necessity,” said Felicitos García, who owns a small grocery store in nearby San Miguel Huautla, adding that he saw the two men about two weeks ago. “Life is tough here. People survive by growing their own crops like corn, beans and wheat. Sometimes the land gives and sometimes it doesn’t, when the rains arrive late. There is nothing in place for people to have other resources. People live one day to the next.”
Vásquez Guzmán’s mother, who is trying to get a visa to see her son in Texas, raised him and his three siblings alone after their father died when Vásquez Guzmán was 10, García said. She now is the only one of the family left in Cerro Verde. Vásquez Guzmán left when he was 18 and joined the Mexican military.
His oldest brother, Eloy, went to the United States just over a year ago and settled in Ohio, said López Hernández, who grew up on the neighboring ranch.
“I imagine that he commented to him about how the work situation was and everything and how to make more money,” López Hernández said. “I imagine he called him so that he would come over, too, to have a better life. That’s the draw for why he was going.”
Vásquez Guzmán, who had been living in Mexico City the past six years, returned to Cerro Verde only to say goodbye to his mother, López Hernández said.
He knew it was an expensive and risky trip. López Hernández said most people rely on those who have made it to the U.S. to send them money for the journey, which usually costs around $9,000.
“There are a lot of risks but for those who are lucky, the fortune is there, to be able to work, earn a living” he said.
With so many leaving and heading to the United States, it is easy to find a smuggler and until now the people have gotten across safely, López Hernández said.
“I don’t know in this case if they changed or what happened, why they were abandoned,” he said.
López Hernández, who also has a brother living in Ohio, has thought about joining him. But he said family, work, school and other responsibilities have kept him in Mexico.
On Sunday night, he asked his uncle if he had heard from Vásquez Guzmán. He told him he was in Texas.
“I told him, ’How cool, that’s he’s trying hard and we’ll see him on his return,’” López Hernández replied before they lost their phone signal.
He later learned from the Internet about the tragedy.
Watson reported from San Diego.