Eleven people died and 31 others were rescued on Thursday after a boat carrying migrants capsized about 10 miles north of Desecheo Island, PR, the US Coast Guard said.
The agency said the crew of a Customs and Border Protection plane spotted a capsized vessel shortly before noon. The crew reported people in the water who did not appear to be wearing life jackets, the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard said the vessel was “suspected of having participated in an illegal voyage”.
Most of those on board were from Haiti, but two of the survivors were from the Dominican Republic, said Jeffrey Quiñones, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The boat departed from the Dominican Republic and was en route through the dangerous Mona Passage to western Puerto Rico, he said.
Mr. Quiñones said that according to the accounts of the migrants, the boat was taking on water and the occupants were trying to shovel the water from the boat. He said it was not uncommon for such trips as the boats are often “unseaworthy”.
“It seems that the boat broke because it is not a boat made for such a trip,” Mr Quiñones said. “With a lot of people inside the boat, of course that could happen.”
A Coast Guard spokesperson said late Thursday that the agency was still searching for survivors and did not know how many people were on the boat. The search was to continue all night.
The top priority is saving lives, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Brendan C. McPherson said in a statement. “We are searching for survivors with all means available, including helicopters, planes and lifeboats from the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection Air and Maritime Operations and Joint Forces partners. quick response from Puerto Rico,” he said.
The lack of opportunity in developing countries, which have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and rising prices that have caused food insecurity, has driven increasing numbers of people to seek entry into the United States.
More than 3,200 migrants were apprehended trying to reach the United States by sea in fiscal year 2021. Most of these arrests were in California, but Florida authorities detained 1,316 Cubans, Haitians and Dominicans, almost as many as the previous two exercises combined.
The data underestimates the actual number of people seeking entry by sea because it only represents events in which people are detained or a vessel is recovered.
After Border Patrol and other law enforcement apprehended five smugglers and 25 migrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic off the coast of Puerto Rico last fall, officials noted an increase in illegal activity.
“We are seeing an increase in smuggling attempts across our borders,” Xavier Morales, chief patrol officer for the Ramey Border Patrol Sector, said in a statement at the time.
Many migrants come from Haiti. They take dangerous routes to escape a country plagued by gang violence, political instability and widespread poverty. They arrive on the west coast of Puerto Rico with some frequency, often on makeshift wooden boats known on that island as “yolas”.
When federal authorities apprehended large groups of migrants or arrested their smugglers, they repeatedly emphasized the dangers of crossing the Mona Passage or make dangerous landings, either in western Puerto Rico or on three small islands in the passage: Mona, Monito and Desecheo.
In October, the US Border Patrol arrested four Dominican men and charged them with transporting 43 Haitians to Mona Island.
Last week, US Border Patrol agents apprehended 60 Haitian migrants and a Dominican woman who arrived in Cabo Rojo, in southwestern Puerto Rico. This followed the arrival this month of 59 Haitians in Rincón, on the northwestern tip of Puerto Rico, known for its strong waves.
In this case, officers had spotted the makeshift boat, a 30-foot homemade vessel, reaching the shore. They found it abandoned on the shore and searched the area before finding the migrants, according to Border Patrol.
Mr. Quiñones, the Border Patrol spokesman, said his agency has frequently discussed capsizes. Typically, he said, smugglers use dangerous methods to avoid detection, such as covering the boat with a blue tarp or using an underpowered engine to minimize splashing water, resulting in treacherous to prolong the journey.
“These ships and the conditions the smugglers put these migrants in on the journey, it’s mind-boggling,” he said.
Patricia Mazzei contributed report.