A one legged driver with a shotgun and $5,600 in cash was far from his carrier in Iowa. 

James Matthew Bradley had been raised by truckers. He was a sixth grade runaway that had slept in drain pipes along highways, hitchhiking around the country with drivers. They had taught him what they knew about driving, and he had now been on the road for forty years.

Today, his load jostled. Two hundred immigrants were entombed in his refrigerator truck that was headed North. The air conditioning unit was broken in the dangerous Texas heat, and they were suffocating slowly.  

Officers called it el camión de la muerte– the Truck of Death. 

The police were tipped off by a Walmart employee who had reported suspicious activity around a truck parked behind the San Antonio, Texas store. 

Minutes before there had been a convoy of SUV’s and vans had filed in behind the truck. As they unsealed the refrigerated truck, sweaty and blood stained immigrants had come pouring out of the back of the trailer. 

Those that could move were fleeing a horror scene: two hundred immigrants had been stuffed into the back of the trailer, with no air conditioning… and very little oxygen.

After receiving the tip about the truck, officers climbed into the trailer, where they found eight dead immigrants lying among the groaning immigrants. 

Trailers can reach 130 degrees, even without the heat of 200 panicking human beings. Since the human body begins to shut down at 108 degrees, it is a miracle that anyone survived.

They were all covered in vomit, human excrement, and blood– the blood was from trying to claw their way out of the trailer: They had used whatever they had knives, keys, and their own fingers. In court, officers described throwing up and crying as they aided the 39 immigrants that had been abandoned in the rig, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Two more immigrants later died from the conditions in the trailer.

The judge that sentenced Bradley said livestock aren’t treated as badly as Bradley treated his human cargo that suffered, “in unspeakable heat … that it could only be equated with torture,” the San Antonio Express Courier continued.

Shocking and sad as it is, this story is not unique. And the use of rigs in human trafficking operations. The Mexican Cartel is using more trucks and drivers for drug and human smuggling, fitting a disturbing pattern of organized crime infiltrating the transportation industry.

Organized crime is capitalizing on vulnerabilities in the transportation industry. Most recently, Mexican cartels have escalated their use of drivers and their rigs to smuggle in record numbers of human beings and drugs.

Canada and Mexico have something in common that may surprise you: They both have brutal cartels that have infiltrated the transportation industry. The parallels are regrettably stark. 

Some of our readers will remember the tow truck wars CDLLife covered as they raged across Canada last year: Burned vehicles. Murders. Gang wars. These are not the things that one associates with our Northern Neighbor. 

In the Canadian tow truck wars 50 trucks were set on fire as part of territorial disputes. It’s believed that at least four people were murdered in connection with these wars. And law enforcement assert that Canada endured the machinations of four competing crime rings.

Unfortunately, trucks and carrier companies are often caught in the cross hairs of crime. They are particularly vulnerable to criminal infiltration because they provide cover for illicit activity or the means of conveying illegal substances and trafficking human beings.

But Canada’s transportation sector isn’t alone in dealing with organized crime.

In fact, the sector is the most frequently reported legal business structure used by criminals to facilitate crime. It is only when such criminal infiltration degenerates into a violent competition among criminal groups that a law enforcement or a public-policy response is triggered.

“Because organized crime groups have often profited from the illegal movement of people, goods and services, the sector has always been vulnerable to infiltration, corruption and control by criminal groups. It has often been very easy for organized crime groups to infiltrate, hijack or capture whole or strategic parts of the local or national transportation industry without drawing much attention from policymakers or law enforcement.

Professor Yvon Dandurand drafted a full scale, international brief on the susceptibility of the transportation industry to infiltration by cartels and the transnational impacts of such crime rings. 

And increasingly Cartels cannot operate without the use of rigs to smuggle drugs and human cargo. Consequently, Operation Big Rig has been instituted at the border to help combat the rise of commercial vehicles in drug and human trafficking. 

CDLLife connected with a representative from Immigration Studies:

To the degree that drivers know that they are helping the cartel, they are aligning themselves with some of the worst people on the planet. It’s a criminal offense. When people get caught the prosecution is swift and sure, and the sentences are long.

Immigrants are always treated like chattel. Enduring sweltering temperatures. Are held hostage at points on their journey– in safe houses in the U.S.. They sometimes die in trucks. It’s not a lot of money. It was 175 degrees in one truck they pulled bodies from. Whatever makes more money– drugs or human lives.

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — “For a human smuggler, the tractor-trailer is an essential tool for transporting immigrants across the American Southwest.”

Prof. Dandurand continues to say that Cartels that impact vulnerable carriers rely on the geographically patterned nature of the transportation industry. In other words, just like the Cartel holds specific territory, they prey on the determined routes and flow of trucks to facilitate their crimes.

Trucks also use legitimate businesses or government projects to cover their illicit activity– trucks get cloned. Legitimate trucking businesses get infiltrated; for example, the high truck volume involved in fracking on the Texas border provides cover for the cartel to move people and drugs around, according to Wired.

Alarmingly, many drivers are unaware that they are being used by traffickers. There have been repeated arrests of commercial drivers that were unsuspecting mules for the Mexican Cartel.

Cartels connecting to drivers have become more sophisticated: They hijack trade apps or use Craigslist to reach local drivers. But they have also become more desperate: Organized crime has recently been employing teenagers as drivers. 

Law enforcement reports that these young drivers are incredibly reckless– with their speed and maneuvering, they will do almost anything to evade capture. But they often only make a few thousand dollars: A pittance for the level of crime and sentencing they face.

And in the end drivers are left with nothing but regret:

“My heart goes out to the families who have lost loved ones,” Bradley said in a jailhouse video statement his public defenders played in court. “If I could turn back the hands of time, I would. … There is not a day or night that goes by that I don’t relive that scene. … I am so sorry it happened.”

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