At least 38 people have been rescued and 11 bodies found as the US Coast Guard searched the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico on Friday with boat, plane and helicopter in an attempt to find more survivors after a boat carrying suspected migrants capsized.
The group was first spotted by a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter on Thursday morning, with authorities warning authorities that it would likely have been too late to rescue anyone else. The rescue efforts were concentrated in an area more than 18 kilometers north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, which is west of Puerto Rico.
“We are always looking for the opportunity to find survivors,” said Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad, adding that crews worked through the night.
It was not immediately clear how many people were in the boat. Of the 38 survivors, 36 were Haitian and two were from the Dominican Republic, he said. At least eight Haitian citizens have been hospitalized, although the nationalities of all those on board were not immediately known.
“Our hopes and prayers are with the survivors and those who are still missing,” said Coast Guard Admiral Brendan McPherson. “Our top priority is saving lives, and that’s what my crews will wear out.”
All 11 victims were female, according to the Forensic Science Institute of Puerto Rico, which announced it would form a special team to perform autopsies on the bodies found Friday. María Conte Miller, the institute’s executive director, said her office has spoken with Dominican consular officials to identify relatives of those who died.
Authorities have noted a sharp increase in migrants in recent months, especially from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, who make what they describe as dangerous journeys aboard rickety ships that often capsize or drop people off on uninhabited islands. It is one of the cheapest ways for migrants to escape poverty and violence, especially in Haiti, where a spike in inflation, kidnappings and brutal gang violence have prompted people to take the risk and board a boat in search of a better life elsewhere.
On Friday, Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry tweeted that the news “devastated him”.
“I offer my condolences to the families of the victims of this new tragedy,” he wrote.
According to the US Customs and Border Protection, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were detained in the waters around Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands from October 2021 to March. The majority of those Haitians, 348 of them, landed on the uninhabited island of Mona in Puerto Rico and were rescued.
In fiscal year 2021, 310 Haitians and 354 Dominicans were detained, compared to the 22 Haitians and 313 Dominicans detained in fiscal year 2020.
Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard said it detained 1,527 Haitians, 838 Cubans and 742 people from the Dominican Republic in the region, including Florida and the Caribbean, in fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
In January, the Coast Guard searched for at least 38 missing people off the coast of Florida after a suspected people-trafficking boat leaving the Bahamas capsized in a storm. A sole survivor was reported.
More recent incidents include 68 migrants rescued on Saturday in the Mona Passage, a treacherous area between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. A woman, believed to be from Haiti, died. Meanwhile, on May 7, Customs and Border Protection detained 60 Haitian migrants who had been smuggled through southwestern Puerto Rico, the agency said. On May 4, another 59 Haitian migrants were detained in northwestern Puerto Rico. In late March, officials said they had detained more than 120 migrants in three separate maritime smuggling incidents.
The increase in Haitians fleeing their countries comes as gangs become more powerful and fight for control over more territorially amid a political vacuum following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government has pledged to fight the gangs with the help of the international community, as Haiti’s national police force is understaffed and resourced.
The country has also been hit by double-digit inflation, severe gas shortages and gang violence that has closed hundreds of schools and businesses and forced some hospitals and clinics to close temporarily. In addition, the administration of US President Joe Biden has expelled more than 20,000 Haitians in recent months under heavy criticism for the country’s downward spiral.