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

A makeshift boat overloaded with migrants capsized Thursday near Puerto Rico, officials said, leaving at least 13 people dead as dozens more were rescued.

“We’re hoping to find additional survivors,” Ricardo Castrodad, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard’s San Juan sector, said Thursday night as a rescue operation continued. “But it could go both ways.” He said it is not clear how many people were on the boat, which he described as “overloaded with people.” Crews did not see any life jackets, he added.

The Coast Guard said it heard shortly before noon that the aircrew of a Customs and Border Protection aircraft had spotted the boat and people in the water, about 10 nautical miles north of Desecheo Island.

The vessel is “suspected of taking part in an illegal voyage,” the Coast Guard said in a news release. Jeffrey Quiñones, a regional spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, said the boat departed from the Dominican Republic but added that only two survivors are from that Caribbean nation. Those rescued include eight Haitians who were transported to a hospital in Aguadilla, a town in northwestern Puerto Rico, he said.

Thirty-one survivors -- 11 women and 20 men -- were taken to Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, Quiñones said.

Betsy Rivera, spokesperson for Puerto Rico’s Institute of Forensic Sciences, said the agency received 13 bodies as a result of the sea accident. They do not yet have identities nor nationalities for the deceased. Autopsies will take place Friday and they hope to extract DNA to identify the dead.

The institute has been in touch with the Dominican Human Rights Committee, an organization they typically contact with these types of incidents, to help identify family members in the neighboring island.

An increasing number of migrants have made similar treacherous journeys by sea, fleeing countries where the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated long-standing problems of poverty and violence.

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

In Puerto Rico and the Mona Passage separating it from the Dominican Republic, 53 voyages were intercepted by the Coast Guard and its partner agencies between Oct. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022. Some 1,308 migrants -- including 940 Dominicans and 298 Haitians -- were apprehended, the Coast Guard said.

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

The boats can be hard to detect, he said, so it was fortunate that Customs and Border Protection crews spotted the emergency.