Family members say Homero Zamorano, who is accused of driving a semi-truck in which 53 migrants died in a smuggling accident on Monday in Texas, long struggled with drug use and had past arrests.
“His life is really separate from ours,” Zamarano’s brother-in-law told The Texas Tribune. “I have no idea how he got involved in that. He would get lost for years and would come around occasionally. He basically raised himself.”
Mr Zamorano, 45, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with undocumented migrant smuggling resulting in death. He will appear in federal court on Thursday afternoon, and could face life in prison or the death penalty.
According to prosecutors, the 45-year-old from Brownsville, Texas, matches surveillance images of the driver of the abandoned trailer filled with migrants in San Antonio, which passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint in Laredo on Monday without being inspected.
He was reportedly found at the scene of trailer hiding in the bush and pretending to be one of the victims. An unnamed law enforcement official said he appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
“He’s always had an issue, a problem with drugs,” his sister, Tomasita Medina, told The Los Angeles Times. “He’s always in and out of our lives because of that.”
She said Mr Zamorano, who goes by “Homer,” was the oldest of three children, in a family that moved between Brownsville, South Florida, and Houston.
At age 14, she said, Mr Zamorano began taking drugs and dropped out of school, and since then, he would engage in crimes to fund his drug use.
“Maybe they offered him drugs or money for drugs,” she added in the Times. “Otherwise, I don’t think he would have done it…It’s hard because we do come from a family of immigrants. My dad was born in Mexico, he was raised in Mexico.”
According to Texas prison records, Mr Zamorano was previously in prison in 2016 and 2017 for jumping bail and missing a court appearance, and served a three-year sentence for a residential burglary in 2000.
Three others have been charged in connection with the smuggling catastrophe, the deadliest of its kind in US history.
Christian Martinez, 28, was arrested on Tuesday, and officials say phone records indicate he was in contact with Mr Zamorano about the smuggling scheme.
On Monday, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 48, were arrested on weapons charges, after authorities linked their address to the registration on the truck used in the human trafficking.
Officials say guns were found in Mr D’Luna-Bilbao’s truck, and at the residence itself, a crime because both men were in the country illegally after overstaying US tourist visas from Mexico.