A brief, tragic spotlight

The survivors came into public view only long enough for the nation to recoil in horror at the worst incident of human smuggling on U.S. soil.

Six years to the month after 19 illegal immigrants suffocated to death near Victoria, the survivors have disappeared into the shadows again. Not even Mexican consuls could find them, despite months-long efforts. Houston's Consul Lolita Parkinson recruited help in places such as Nuevo Laredo and San Luis Potosi to no avail.

U.S. attorneys won't allow survivors of the May 2003 tragedy to discuss the trip. They threatened survivors, a handful of whom still have U.S. work rights, with deportation if they talk. Of the 14 smugglers indicted following the deaths of 19, two federal trials remain unfinished. Abel Flores Jr. and Fredy Tovar-Garcia have yet to receive federal sentences.

Advocate journalists traveled across South Texas, from Houston to Harlingen, and into Mexico in search of survivors. During one trip to San Benito, to inside a small country home, an Advocate journalist met with a smuggler from the trip.

The man agreed to a federal plea deal and escaped prison time. But he demanded blood money in return for his story, or for contacts to those who endured the deadly trip. The Advocate declined.

Instead, the Advocate pored through federal trial transcripts to the tell the story in detail never before shared with the public. Although the immigrants returned to the shadows, the issues surrounding illegal immigration still must be brought to light.