The New York Times
August 16, 2004

Nightmare at Sea Shatters Dreams in a Dominican Town

VILLA ALTAGRACIA, Dominican Republic, Aug. 14 - In the district of Sagrario Diaz, just living day to day can be a struggle. Most of the homes here are made of lashed-together pieces of tin. The best houses are built with cinderblocks, made possible by money sent by Dominicans living in the United States.

That poverty, and the lure of the money to help ease it, drives thousands of Dominicans a year to set out on rickety boats, or yolas, for Puerto Rico and then for New York or other American cities. Esteban Disla Frias, a 32-year-old lottery ticket salesman from this neighborhood in Villa Altagracia, was one of them. He set out more than two weeks ago on a boat with about 80 others, trying to make life better for his family here, including his pregnant wife.

Instead, his fate has left them devastated, and the harrowing and sometimes contradictory accounts from the survivors of the ordeal that killed Mr. Frias and about 50 others over the course of 13 days stranded at sea have gripped this country.

"We don't even have a body to mourn, since he was thrown to be consumed by the sharks," said his father, Miguel Disla Vicent, a 63-year-old retired sugar cane cutter. "The savagery that took place on that boat is too great to imagine."

Although much of what happened between when the boat set out, on July 29, and when it washed up on this country's northern coast 13 days later is still shrouded in confusion, the way the trip started is clear.

The 80 or so passengers paid about $450 each, a full year's wages for most Dominicans, to pack into a boat 40 feet long by 10 feet. It is an increasingly common scenario: About 7,000 Dominicans have been apprehended in the Mona Passage, the 80-mile stretch of water between this nation and Puerto Rico, since October. That is more than double the number a year earlier, and it does not include the thousands who successfully make the trip, nor the hundreds thought to have died in the past year when their voyages went awry in the shark-infested waters.

The boat set out from the coastal village of El Limón on a voyage expected to take no longer than three days. Instead, when the craft's motor gave out after two days and the captain hopped aboard a passing boat, presumably in search of assistance, panic set in, survivors said.

One survivor, Luis Mirelis Aguero, said the meager supply of food on the boat, some canned sardines and bags of peanuts, quickly ran out. After that, two lactating women dripped their breast milk into a bottle for the passengers to drink, he said. One of those women later died, though the cause was unclear.

"I was fortunate because I had a tube of Colgate to eat," Mr. Aguero, a 24-year-old construction worker, said in an interview on Saturday in the living room of his home in Arenoso. He appeared dangerously emaciated, and he said he had been skinny before the trip started. "The strongest ones, or the ones that looked the strongest, were the first to die," he said.

He told of one woman who died after a miscarriage and whose body was dumped into the sea because passengers were afraid her blood would draw sharks to the boat.

Other accounts of what took place aboard the boat differ, although the survivors generally deny the reports of cannibalism that appeared in newspapers in Santo Domingo. Some survivors told news agencies that one woman was thrown to the sharks after refusing to share her breast milk.

Contradictory accounts of struggles on the boat have raised suspicions among the families of the passengers, and have even set whole towns against one another. Residents of Villa Altagracia, for instance, were outraged after finding that 17 of the 18 passengers from the town were among the dead, even though many people from a small city to the north, Villa Riva, survived. The families of the dead from Villa Altagracia are convinced that the passengers from Villa Riva killed their relatives in order to hoard the dwindling food and water on the boat.

Their theories are based on the account from the sole survivor from the town. That man said he had lied when asked on the boat where he was from, claiming he was from an area near Villa Riva. He has since fled Villa Altagracia out of fear that he might be hunted down for disclosing what happened, neighbors gathered near his home said Saturday.

Fear of retribution was also present at a private clinic in San Francisco de Macorís, a city near Villa Riva, where another survivor, Kelvin Rodríguez, was recuperating from severe dehydration. His mother, Guadalupe Rodríguez, kept the door to her son's room locked out of concern that relatives of those who died, or worse yet, the boat's clandestine owners, might try to silence him.

"I can't thank God enough for saving my son, but I'm afraid of the people from Altagracia," said Ms. Rodríguez, 52, who lives in Villa Riva.

As survivors and their families tried to make sense of what happened, government officials sought to show over the weekend that they were taking steps to prevent such voyages. The navy on Saturday announced the arrests of three of its officers and three sailors, accusing them of accepting bribes to allow the boat to sail to Puerto Rico. [The navy also said Sunday that it had apprehended 91 people, including 10 women, who were seeking to sail to Puerto Rico from the town of La Caleta.]

The wave of emigration is the most vivid legacy of the economic crisis that awaits Leonel Fernández, a lawyer and university professor who assumes the presidency from Hipólito Mejía on Monday. In just a year, the country's economy has gone from being one of the fastest-growing in Latin America to one of the most vulnerable, with inflation rising above 40 percent and acute shortages of electricity and gasoline.

Guillermo Piña-Contreras, a Dominican writer and a former ambassador to France, said the allure of a new life away from the ailing economy in the country had been too strong to resist lately. "The frontier between death and adventure is quite fragile," Mr. Piña-Contreras wrote in an essay in the newspaper El Caribe. "The hope of attaining something better prevents the migrants from thinking of failure."

For those who survived the boat trip, piecing together their lives seems to be a priority after spending a small fortune on a voyage that delivered them hungry and battered by the elements not far from where they set out.

At one survivor's home in Villa Riva, a family friend said she was almost as afraid now of the possibility of reprisals as she had been when she awaited news while the boat was lost at sea.

"We don't know what happened on that boat; I don't know if the survivors even know exactly what happened," she said, giving only her first name, Adalgisa, as a blackout shut off electricity in the home. "We don't have lights here, and we just want to feel safe. The darkness is so frightening."