13 dead, dozens rescued after migrant boat capsizes near Puerto Rico

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A makeshift boat overloaded with migrants capsized on Thursday en route to Puerto Rico, officials said, leaving at least 13 people dead and dozens more rescued.

“We hope to find more survivors,” Ricardo Castrodad, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard’s San Juan Sector, said Thursday night as a rescue operation continued. “But it can go either way.” He said it was unclear how many people were on the boat, which he described as “overcrowded”. Crews did not see any life jackets, he added.

The Coast Guard said it heard shortly before noon that the crew of a Customs and Border Protection plane had spotted the boat and people in the water. Authorities said the boat was found about 10 nautical miles north of Desecheo Island – a patch of land in the Mona Passage, the strait between Puerto Rico and the Caribbean island that includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The vessel is “suspected of having participated in an illegal voyage,” the Coast Guard said in a statement. Growing numbers of migrants have made similar treacherous journeys by sea, fleeing countries where the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated longstanding problems of poverty and violence.

Thirty-one survivors – 11 women and 20 men – were taken to Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, said Jeffrey Quiñones, Regional Customs and Border Protection Spokesperson. He said the boat left from the Dominican Republic, but added that only two survivors were from that country.

Among those rescued are eight Haitians who were taken to a hospital in Aguadilla, a town in northwestern Puerto Rico, Quiñones said.

Betsy Rivera, spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Institute of Forensic Sciences, said the agency received 13 bodies from the maritime accident. He did not yet have identities or nationalities for the deceased. Autopsies will take place on Friday and the agency hopes to extract DNA to identify the dead.

The institute has been in contact with the Dominican Human Rights Committee, an organization with which it usually contacts these types of incidents, to help identify family members on the neighboring island.

Puerto Rico has a large Dominican population and illegal sea crossings are common. Videos circulating on social media capture migrants arriving at popular beaches, where locals sometimes greet and cheer them on as they flee authorities.

But crossings can be perilous. Last week, a woman died after a boat capsized during an illegal trip through Mona Passage. The US Coast Guard and Dominican Republic Navy rescued 68 more people after spotting them “constantly draining water from the makeshift vessel”, officials said.

“This case highlights the dangers of illegal travel on makeshift and grossly overloaded vessels in Mona Passage,” Capt. José E. Díaz, acting commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan, said Saturday. , in a press release.

Castrodad said the kind of ship that capsized on Thursday is known as a “yola” – a boat with “poor construction, always taking on water, unseaworthy and designed to try and get these people through in one attempt”.

Boats can be difficult to detect, he said, so it’s lucky Customs and Border Protection teams spotted the emergency.

Officials said they were working to interview survivors and learn more about the situation.

A growing number of Dominicans and Haitians have been intercepted in Puerto Rico and Mona Passage on “illegal voyages” in recent years, according to U.S. Coast Guard data. During fiscal year 2021 – which ran from October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021 – 463 Dominicans and 15 Haitians were intercepted by the Coast Guard.

Fifty-three of those trips were intercepted by the Coast Guard and its partner agencies from October 1 last year to March 31. Some 1,308 migrants – including 940 Dominicans and 298 Haitians – were apprehended, the Coast Guard said.

According to U.S. Coast Guard data, 1,527 Haitians, 742 Dominicans, and 838 Cubans on “illegal voyages” were intercepted in Florida and the Caribbean in the year ended September 30, 2021.

Minority Rights Group International, a nonprofit human rights organization, said about 30,000 of the 100,000 Dominicans living in Puerto Rico are believed to be undocumented immigrants. Most of these immigrants stay on the island rather than travel to other parts of the United States, the nonprofit organization said.

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