AUSTIN (KXAN) – Smuggled migrants often face mistreatment, extortion and violence – and those are the lucky ones.

In the billion-dollar business of human smuggling, the road to freedom is often paved in danger, deception and death. That was seen this week when 51 migrants died from conditions inside of a sweltering semi-truck in San Antonio, highlighting the extreme dangers and tactics used to conceal border crossings.

On the side of the truck, visible from a helicopter, is a U.S. Department of Transportation number that traces back to a company called Betancourt Trucking and Harvesting in the Rio Grande Valley — an area immigration officials call the “busiest area for human smuggling activity in the U.S. right now.

The owner’s son, Felipe Betancourt Jr., was too scared to show his face. He said their TxDOT and USDOT numbers were stolen and fraudulently used on the truck found in San Antonio.

“We just want everyone to know it’s not our company,” Betancourt told reporters. “Our truck is sitting right here.”

Betancourt calls it “cloning,” but USDOT officials refer to it as “physical identity theft.” On average, 75 cases of stolen USDOT numbers are caught each year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates, either during inspections or self-reported by businesses.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration alert warning about stolen USDOT numbers, which appears to be what happened in San Antonio.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration alert warning about stolen USDOT numbers, which appears to be what happened in San Antonio.

KXAN found more than 400 federal violations, issued by the FMCSA since 2018, related to “fraudulent” trucking records. We also found multiple criminal charges against individuals using false USDOT numbers to operate illegally.

Federal transportation officials previously issued an alert warning about stolen DOT numbers being used “without the knowledge and consent of the motor carrier to which the number is registered.”

“The improper carrier identification and assignment of inspections to the wrong carrier profile is negatively impacting the ability of the victim carrier to operate, allows fraudulent and poor performing drivers and vehicles to continue to operate,” the alert read.

Two Mexican nationals are now facing federal charges related to the case in San Antonio, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A third person is being detained. Both men are charged with possessing funds while being in the country illegally. They were tracked down from their Texas registration plate and Texas motor vehicle records.

Since 2014, more than 1,700 migrants crossing the southwest border have died, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Extreme heat is often cited as a major factor.