December 9, 2022

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Authorities search for migrants in Puerto Rico after capsize

On Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami Commander, says the Coast Guard is ending its search for migrants after five bodies were found. Thirty-four more are feared dead off Florida.

On Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami Commander, says the Coast Guard is ending its search for migrants after five bodies were found. Thirty-four more are feared dead off Florida.

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U.S. authorities on Friday shifted their search for missing migrants from a capsized boat off Puerto Rico to land from water after 17 individuals were taken into custody hours after their makeshift craft hit a rock.

The accident happened near the Isabela shoreline and Coast Guard crews suspended their search at 12:15 p.m. after they did not find any survivors in the water, said spokesman Ricardo Castrodad.

Jeffrey Quiñones, a spokesman with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said questioning of the detained migrants suggests that there were 27 individuals on the boat, known as a yola, when it overturned and people started running inland. They are now continuing their search for 10 individuals. Quiñones said the migrants were from the Dominican Republic.

U.S. Coast Guard aircrews and emergency personnel launched their search after a 911 call at 12:58 a.m. Friday reported people running toward land and others in the water after a vessel overturned. The makeshift boat capsized about 75 yards off Shacks Beach in Isabela, an area with shallow waters and coral rocks.

The Coast Guard said the boat was smuggling people to the U.S. territory as part of an “illegal voyage.”

“At the moment they haven’t found anyone else” in the water, Castrodad said around mid-morning.

For months, Puerto Rico, like South Florida, has been seeing an uptick in illegal migration as desperate migrants from Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic attempt to reach the United States. The surge has made U.S. border officials increasingly worried about tragedies at sea.

“It doesn’t take much for a tragic situation to occur where everyone on a boat like this can lose their lives,” Castrodad said.

This is the second time in days that Coast Guard crews have searched for missing migrants. On Thursday night, the agency suspended its search for dozens of migrants after their boat capsized about 40 miles off Fort Pierce Inlet shortly after it left the Bahamas en route to Florida. Five bodies have been recovered since Wednesday and one survivor was rescued. There were 40 migrants on that boat when it capsized.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Puerto Rico caught 17 people connected to the capsized boat.

“Initial statements received from the survivors state there were 27 persons aboard the vessel before it capsized,” the U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement. “Border Patrol authorities continue to work to determine how many people were actually on the vessel and how many others made it safely to shore.”

The U.S. Coast Guard said on Thursday, 94 Dominicans were repatriated back to the Dominican Republic on board the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant following the interdiction of two illegal voyages, one on Monday and another on Wednesday, near Puerto Rico. Also on Thursday, the crew of another cutter, William Trump, returned 40 people to Cuba, after two interdictions at sea off Key West. One suspected smuggler was transferred to Homeland Security Investigations special agents, the Coast Guard said.

“To those looking to take part in an illegal voyage we can’t overstate to them that they not take to the seas,” said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Mickey Wenk, Sector San Juan chief of enforcement. “Many persons taking part in an illegal voyage do not realize the perils associated with crossing the Mona Passage; the dangers are quite real and the journey is just not worth it. People risk drowning by going overboard, capsizing, or the vessel breaking apart. They also do not realize they could face criminal prosecution or be returned to their country of origin.”

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The boat that a large group of 45 Haitian migrants reportedly used to get to Rincón, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 24, 2022. Erica Amon

Quiñones, the CBP spokesperson, said on Thursday that Border Patrol agents in Puerto Rico detained 25 Haitians after they arrived at about 3 a.m. in the town of Aguada, bordering the Atlantic Ocean on the island’s west coast. The group included 12 men and 13 women. That same day, another group of Haitian migrants — 17 men and 10 women — also arrived in the beachside town of Rincón on the west coast.

It was the second time this week that Haitian migrants were reported landing in Rincón, a quiet town known for its world-famous surfing.

On Monday, residents and tourists reported seeing 45 Haitian migrants wash up ashore in a small wooden canoe. They were taken by authorities to Ramey Station for processing and removal.

Since October, U.S. Coast Guard crews have interdicted 702 Dominicans, 248 Haitians, and 50 others of different nationalities in the Mona Passage and near Puerto Rico, compared to 463 Dominicans and 15 Haitians the previous fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2021.

This story was originally published January 28, 2022 9:48 AM.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.