MEXICO CITY—Smugglers have been packing U.S.-bound migrants into trucks such as the one in the fatal crash that killed dozens in southern Mexico to avoid stepped-up inspections of passenger buses, human-rights workers said.

The out-of-control trailer truck that crashed Thursday into a pedestrian bridge in southern Chiapas state carried more than 160 migrants, mostly Central American migrants who were being smuggled to the U.S., Mexican authorities said. There were at least 55 migrants killed and 104 injured.

The truck tipped over on a sharp curve and crashed into the base of the bridge outside the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Rescue workers who arrived at the scene extracted survivors from the wreckage.

A truck carrying more than 160 Central American migrants crashed in southern Mexico, killing more than 50 people, according to authorities. The accident happened on a road used by many migrants trying to reach the U.S. Photo: Getty Images

Televised footage showed bodies covered by blankets and sheets on the side of the road as Mexican Red Cross workers tended to the injured. The overturned truck lay on its side on the road. Local media reports said an unknown number of survivors fled the scene of the accident.

The driver of the truck escaped, said

Gen. Luis Rodríguez Bucio,

head of Mexico’s National Guard.

Gen. Rodríguez Bucio said at a news conference Friday that more than 100 people had been taken to local hospitals. The injured included at least 19 minors, most of them teenagers.

It was the worst accident involving migrants in Mexico and the highest single-day toll since the killing of 72 migrants by the Zetas drug cartel in the border state of Tamaulipas in 2010. A group of Guatemalan migrants were massacred earlier this year by Mexican security forces, also in Tamaulipas.

More than have 650 people died this year attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, more than in any year since 2014, the United Nations International Organization for Migration said Friday.

Most of the migrants were from Guatemala, although there were several from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Ecuador, Gen. Rodríguez Bucio said.

He said the migrants entered Mexico through mountain paths and dirt roads in smaller groups several days earlier. They had gathered at safe houses used by smugglers in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, from where they were loaded onto the truck Thursday afternoon. He said that between San Cristóbal and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the truck hadn’t passed any checkpoints set up to detect migrants on the route used by many seeking to make their way to the U.S.

Guatemalans have few legal pathways to emigrate to the U.S., said

Andrew Selee,

the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. In fiscal year 2020, the U.S. provided about 4,000 seasonal work visas to Guatemalans.

“We urgently need to find ways of creating legal pathways for people to migrate instead of driving them further into the hands of smugglers and raising the risk of the journey,” Mr. Selee added.

Mexican migration authorities have intensified inspections of passenger buses in recent months, resulting in the detention of hundreds of migrants traveling north, said Enrique Vidal, a member of the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center in the city of Tapachula, Chiapas.

In October, more than 600 migrants, including some 350 children traveling in three double-trailer trucks, were detained in Tamaulipas. The majority were from Guatemala.

The National Guard recently stopped a trailer truck jammed with 205 migrants in central Mexico, most of them Guatemalans.

The increase in the apprehension of migrants at Mexico’s southern border has sent many more into the hands of smugglers, said Oscar Misael Hernández, an expert on migration and border violence at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

“The migrant smuggling business is transnational, and after drug and weapons trafficking, is one of the most profitable for criminal groups,” he said.

While some Central American migrants travel in caravans to the U.S. southern border for safety, many more pay up to $10,000 a person to smugglers known as coyotes to organize the dangerous trips. Surveys show that more than any other Central American group, Guatemalans use coyotes to travel to the U.S.

In towns and cities across Guatemala, smugglers advertise their services in the Mayan language on community radio and on Facebook. Coyotes frequently pay off police and immigration authorities, as well as organized-crime groups, to deliver the migrants to their destinations.

“It’s a tragedy that exposes the monumental level of corruption that exists on the southern border,” said Alejandro Schtulmann, head of the political risk consulting firm Empra.

In recent years, people smuggling has grown from a cottage industry to a big business with local community smugglers who are known to families working hand in hand with transnational criminal networks to deliver migrants to destinations in the U.S., Mr. Selee said.

“The days of the community smuggler who took you from where you lived to your destination in the U.S. are largely over,” he said, adding that people smuggling these days is mostly a network business. “You may be recruited by a smuggler in a hometown but then handed off to people on the route who have much fewer scruples and less of a relationship with the community,” he said.

During their journeys, migrants must elude Mexican security forces tasked by President

Andrés Manuel López Obrador,

who is under pressure from the U.S. to stem the tide of undocumented migrants heading north.

After a lull in migration flows in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of migrants apprehended in Mexico has risen sharply this year. Through October, Mexican authorities have apprehended close to 193,000 migrants from Central America, compared with 76,000 in all of 2020.

Guatemala, a country of 18 million people, is among the poorest in Latin America. It ranks among the world’s worst in chronic childhood malnutrition, according to the World Bank, disproportionately affecting the country’s rural, Maya-speaking indigenous population.

“With all the poverty that Covid left in Central America, there’s a wave of people coming,” Mr. Schtulmann said.

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com and Anthony Harrup at anthony.harrup@wsj.com

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