11 dead, 31 rescued after boat capsizes near Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A boat loaded with suspected migrants capsized north of an uninhabited island near Puerto Rico and 11 people had been confirmed dead while 31 others were rescued Thursday, authorities said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were aboard the boat when it turned over, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad. He said a “mass rescue effort” was still underway.

“We’re looking to rescue as many people as we can and find as many survivors as we can,” he said.

At least eight Haitians were taken to the hospital, although the nationalities of all those aboard the boat were not immediately known.

The incident was the latest in a string of capsizings across the region as migrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic flee violence and poverty in their countries.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter spotted the overturned boat late Thursday morning.

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“If not for that, we would not have known about this until someone would have found any sign or received reports from people that their loved ones are missing,” Castrodad said. “They found them early enough that we were able to coordinate a response.”

The boat was spotted more than 11 miles (18 kilometers) north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, which is off Puerto Rico’s west coast. The U.S. Coast Guard said those rescued were 20 men and 11 women.

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The capsizing comes less than a week after the U.S. Coast Guard and Dominican navy on Saturday rescued 68 migrants in the Mona Passage, a treacherous area between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One woman believed to be from Haiti died, Castrodad said.

“These voyages are dangerous,” Castrodad said. “They’re unsafe, they are grossly overloaded … (and) no lifesaving equipment. It wouldn’t really take much for any of these vessels to capsize.”

From October 2021 to March, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were detained in waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The majority of those Haitians, 348 of them, landed in Puerto Rico’s uninhabited Mona Island and were rescued.

In fiscal year 2021, 310 Haitians and 354 Dominicans were detained, compared with the 22 Haitians and 313 Dominicans apprehended in fiscal year 2020.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard said that in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, it apprehended 1,527 Haitians, 838 Cubans and 742 people from the Dominican Republic in the region, which includes Florida and the Caribbean.

Since then, trips of human smuggling boats have only increased, authorities say.

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

Hundreds of Haitians have arrived in Florida alone in recent months after swimming ashore.

Haiti is struggling with a surge in gang-related violence that has killed dozens of people, including women and children, and caused thousands of families to flee their homes. Kidnappings also have spiked, including those of eight Turkish citizens who on Sunday were forced off a bus they had boarded in the Dominican Republic.

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Kidnappings in the country of more than 11 million people have increased 180% and homicides are up 17% in the past year, according to the United Nations, which last week expressed concern over “the rapid deterioration of security and human rights” in Haiti.

Many have criticized the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden for deporting more than 20,000 Haitians in recent months given the country’s deepening turmoil.

The crackdown is increasingly penetrating into the city’s long-respected economic, religious and educational institutions, along with non-governmental organizations, many of which have closed down their Hong Kong operations. The city was promised that it could keep freedoms of speech, assembly and judicial independence when it was handed over from Britain to China in 1997, but critics say Beijing has reneged on its guarantees.

China’s Foreign Ministry fired back at the criticism, with spokesperson Zhao Lijian saying, “We are firmly opposed to any act that denigrates the rule of law in Hong Kong and interferes in Hong Kong affairs.”

“Hong Kong is a law-based society, where no organization or individual is above the law, and all illegal acts will be punished by law,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.

Separately, the ministry’s office in Hong Kong issued a statement saying that “safeguarding national security is justified, foreign interference is purely in vain.”

Zen had once sought to build bridges with China’s Communist Party-controlled Catholic church by visiting Beijing-approved seminaries in mainland China. But he also said those experiences showed him the lack of religious freedom in China and fed a deep distrust of the officially atheist ruling party.

China broke off relations with the Holy See in 1951 after the party took power and established its own church. Foreign priests were expelled and many of their Chinese colleagues spent decades in prison or labor camps.

In recent years, the Vatican, particularly under Pope Francis, has been eager to reach a deal with the Chinese government and unite the churches.

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