38 rescued, 11 dead as US searches for waters near Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — At least 38 people have been rescued and 11 bodies found as the U.S. Coast Guard scoured the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico Friday by boat, plane and helicopter in an effort to find more survivors after an accident. Boat carrying presumed migrants capsized.

The group was first spotted Thursday morning by a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter, with authorities warning that it likely would have been too late to rescue anyone otherwise. Rescue efforts have focused on an area more than 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, which is west of Puerto Rico.

“We always look for the possibility of finding survivors,” Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said, adding that crews worked through the night.

It was not immediately clear how many people were on the boat. Of the 38 survivors, 36 were Haitians and two from the Dominican Republic, he said. At least eight Haitian nationals have been hospitalized, although the nationalities of all those on board were not immediately known.

“Our hope and prayers are with the survivors and those who remain missing,” said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson. “Our highest priority is saving lives, and that is what my teams will tire of doing.”

In recent months, authorities have noted a sharp rise in migrants, especially from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, making what they describe as dangerous journeys aboard rickety boats that often shipwreck or leave people on uninhabited islands. It is one of the cheapest ways for migrants to flee poverty and violence, especially in Haiti, where rising inflation, kidnappings and brutal gang violence have led people to take risks and board a ship in search of a better life elsewhere.

From October 2021 through March, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were apprehended in waters around Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, according to US Customs and Border Protection. Most 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 22 Haitians and 313 Dominicans detained in fiscal year 2020.

Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard said that in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, it detained 1,527 Haitians, 838 Cubans and 742 Dominicans in the region, which includes Florida and the Caribbean.

In January, the Coast Guard searched for at least 38 people missing off the Florida coast after a suspected people-smuggling boat that had left the Bahamas capsized in a storm. A single survivor was reported.

More recent incidents include 68 migrants rescued 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 apprehended 60 Haitian immigrants who the agency says were smuggled through southwestern Puerto Rico. On May 4, another 59 Haitian migrants were detained in northwestern Puerto Rico. In late March, authorities said they detained more than 120 migrants in three separate maritime smuggling incidents.

The surge in Haitians fleeing their country comes as gangs become more powerful and fight for control of more territory amid a political vacuum following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The administration of Prime Minister Ariel Henry has pledged to crack down on the gangs with the help of the international community as the Haitian National Police is understaffed and under-resourced.

The country has also been hit by double-digit inflation, a severe gasoline shortage and gang violence that has shuttered hundreds of schools and businesses and prompted the temporary closure of some hospitals and clinics. Additionally, the administration of US President Joe Biden has deported more than 20,000 Haitians in recent months amid heavy criticism given the country’s downward spiral.

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