The Miami Herald
March 10, 2000
Desperation, death, mystery mark Dominican voyage at sea


 ISABELA, Puerto Rico -- It was their best shot at the American Dream, so the
 desperate Dominican migrants packed the 23-foot boat so tightly they had to sit
 in fetal positions. Instead, the trip turned into a nightmare.

 ``When we sank, a rope caught my ankle and pulled me under, said Julie
 Vazquez, one of the 27 confirmed survivors of the shipwreck Wednesday off a
 Puerto Rican beach. Ten others drowned and 37 are missing.

 ``I prayed to my dead father, `Papi, you who are already dead, keep me from
 joining you,' and the rope let go, Vazquez said Thursday. ``I lived, but my
 sister-in-law, Maria, and a lot of other people went under.

 Two other survivors showed red scratches on their arms where other passengers
 clawed at them to stay afloat, and speculated that some of the missing were
 attacked by two large sharks that were trailing the boat.

 For the fourth time in a year, the 80 miles of ocean separating the Dominican
 Republic and Puerto Rico have claimed the lives of poor Dominicans trying to
 sneak into wealthier U.S. territory. The estimated toll so far: 86 drowned.

 Mystery still surrounds the fate of 34 passengers and three smugglers missing
 from Wednesday's shipwreck and initially believed to have drowned in the surf
 pounding the beaches of Isabela, 80 miles west of San Juan.

 Two helicopters, a police boat and five police divers searching the area Thursday
 found the wreckage of the wooden boat under 20 feet of water. But they
 discovered no bodies beyond the 10 recovered the previous day.

 ``Either it's not true that there were 74 people on the boat or most of them swam
 ashore and escaped, said search director Lt. Luis A. Santiago, head of the Puerto
 Rican police marine unit in the nearby city of Aguadilla.

 Santiago called off the search Thursday morning, hoping that calmer waters today
 might allow his divers to better scour the shallow waters and rocky outcrops
 around Isabela.


 Survivors insist there were 71 passengers and three crew members aboard, and
 tell a detailed if sometimes confused tale of a trip that went smoothly until their
 boat was 100 yards from their destination.

 The lure is simple: Although the Dominican economy has boomed since 1996,
 per capita income there still stands at $1,600, compared to $8,817 for Puerto
 Rico. And from Puerto Rico, migrants can also easily fly to the U.S. mainland.

 An estimated 100,000 Dominicans live on the island of four million people, both
 legally and illegally, said Deputy Dominican Consul Maximo Taveras.

 Most of the survivors from Wednesday's shipwreck, detained at a U.S.
 Immigration and Naturalization Service compound in Aguadilla, come from the
 northwestern Dominican Republic, a poor agricultural region largely untouched by
 the country's recent economic progress.

 ``My husband is a tobacco farmer, and he had to burn the crop last year because
 no one was buying, complained Nelsida Martinez, 25, who left her husband and
 two children, ages 5 and 3, in her village of Villa Vazquez, hoping to land a job as
 a maid in Puerto Rico.


 Ana Grullon, 32, said there were no jobs at all in her village of Guayabin, near the
 border with Haiti. And Julie Vazquez said she had to find some way to feed and
 clothe her girls, 8 and 5, and 5-month old boy.

 ``I dropped out of high school in the second grade. What good is an education if
 there are no jobs? And in my country there are just no opportunities at all,
 Vazquez said.

 The women said they each paid 12,000 Dominican pesos, about $725, for a seat
 aboard a 23-foot boat, powered by a single 65-horsepower outboard motor, that
 left Tuesday at about 1 a.m. from a point near the eastern tip of the Dominican

 ``The 19 women were loaded first, then the men, in groups of 10. We were so
 many that we had to sit like this, said Vazquez, curling up into a fetal position.

 The crossing of the Mona Passage, where the waters of the Atlantic and
 Caribbean usually clash and whip up huge waves, went surprisingly well -- ``flat,
 as though the ocean had been ironed, Vazquez said.

 But 100 yards off the Isabela beach, at about 2 a.m. Wednesday, a wave
 knocked two of the boat's 19 female passengers overboard, the women recalled.
 The captain swung the boat around to pick up the women, but the motor stalled
 and the boat started drifting into a rocky section of the beach.

 The captain and his two crewmen jumped overboard and swam to shore, the
 survivors recalled with disgust. Panic and the huge waves near shore rapidly filled
 the boat.

 ``Everyone was shouting `sit down,' `move to the left,' `move to the other side,'
 Grullon recalled. ``Then a wave tipped us, just 30 feet from shore. Everyone was
 thrashing around, and then they started to go under.


 Grullon said she floated to shore on one of nine plastic fuel drums on board.
 Vazquez grabbed a backpack that was floating nearby. Martinez said she does
 not know how to swim, but somehow made it to the beach.

 ``By the time I got to the sand, there were already three bodies washed up on the
 shore, Vazquez said.

 It was a familiar story. Since Feb. 7 of last year, 86 illegal Dominican migrants
 are believed to have drowned in four shipwrecks of smugglers' boats off the Puerto
 Rican or Dominican coasts.

 Increased U.S. Coast Guard and Dominican navy patrols of the Mona Passage
 since the mid-1990s have slowed the flow of undocumented Dominicans. As a
 result, deportations of Dominicans, which averaged 3,500 a year in the
 mid-1980s, now average 1,500 a year, INS Puerto Rico spokesman Ivan Ortiz

 Yet the lure of Puerto Rico remains strong.

 As handcuffed survivors of the latest shipwreck stood in line waiting to be
 deported later Thursday on an American Eagle flight from San Juan to Santo
 Domingo, an INS guard jokingly asked if they planned to come back.

 ``For sure, said a grinning Dominican man in his early 20s. ``For sure, for sure.

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald