SANTO DOMINGO – Another four bodies have been recovered following last weekend’s sinking of a small boat carrying people trying to migrate illegally from the Dominican Republic to the Puerto Rico, lifting the death toll to 51, officials said.
“At the conclusion of (Thursday’s) search, we removed from the sea the bodies of four men who still have not been identified,” Dominican navy eastern region commander Col. Hector Ramon Mendez told Efe by telephone.
The boat carrying more than 70 illegal immigrants bound for the U.S. commonwealth sank early Saturday in Samana Bay, off the coast of the northeastern Dominican province of Maria Trinidad Sanchez.
The vessel’s stern began breaking up due to strong waves and the weight of the passengers, causing it to capsize, survivors said.
“We’ll continue the search (Saturday),” the colonel said, adding that authorities still have not decided when they will call off the search-and-rescue operation.
A total of 13 people survived the boat’s sinking, but the number of survivors could be higher because some people failed to report to the navy for fear of being arrested, Samana province emergency management chief Moraima Ramon told Efe earlier this week.
“We are hoping to God that we will find more survivors,” Ramon said by telephone from Samana province, which neighbors Maria Trinidad Sanchez.
Between 20 and 25 people may have made it ashore, survivor Julio Cesar Nuñez told the El Nacional newspaper.
The boat’s captain jumped overboard and began swimming ashore amid the panic and confusion, Nuñez said, adding that he saved himself by tying a demijohn to his waist and taking a life jacket from a dead migrant.
“It was an ugly spectacle to see so many people who did not know how to swim sinking in the water and others getting tired or just being unable to make the crossing of seven kilometers (4.3 miles) amid strong waves that made it hard to make progress,” Nuñez said.
David Cepeda Calcaño, who was identified by some survivors as one of the men in charge of the boat, was arrested in connection with the shipwreck.
Cepeda is a “well-known organizer” of people-smuggling trips to Puerto Rico who operates in the northeastern Dominican Republic, the navy said in a statement released Tuesday.
Cepeda was arrested at least three times between 2000 and 2008 for people trafficking, the navy said.
Two other people involved in the smuggling operation are being sought by authorities.
People smugglers charged between 30,000 and 40,000 pesos ($770 and $1,025) to get the Dominicans into neighboring Puerto Rico, survivors said.
Thousands of Dominicans try to reach the U.S. commonwealth every year, preferring to risk their lives rather than continue living in poverty in their homeland.
Many migrants drown each year on the treacherous journey across the 100-kilometer (62-mile) Mona Passage on the rickety wooden boats known as “yolas.”
Three people were killed and dozens more disappeared in a shipwreck in December off Matancitas beach, located in the northeastern Dominican Republic, while trying to reach Puerto Rico.
About 30 people managed to swim ashore, emergency management officials said. EFE