The death toll from the sinking over the weekend of a small boat carrying migrants from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico has risen to 43, with the search for the missing continuing, a navy commander told Efe Wednesday.
“I have 18 bodies on land,” navy eastern region commander Capt. Hector Ramon Mendez said by telephone.
The small boat, which was carrying more than 70 illegal immigrants bound for Puerto Rico, sank early Saturday.
The vessel’s stern began breaking up due to strong waves and the weight of the passengers, causing it to capsize, survivors said.
Six bodies in an advanced state of decomposition were found on the coast and taken to Sabana de la Mar, Samana province emergency management chief Moraima Ramon told Efe.
Twelve more bodies were found later in the day by searchers, officials said.
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, Ramon said.
The search and recovery operation may be called off on Thursday, Ramon said.
“We are hoping to God that we will find more survivors,” Ramon said by telephone from Samana province, located 245 kilometers (152 miles) northeast of Santo Domingo.
Up to 45 people may have died in the shipwreck, while between 20 and 25 others 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 Nagua, Samana, San Francisco de Macoris, Sanchez and Rio San Juan, all located 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 of Puerto Rico every year, preferring to risk their lives rather than continue living in poverty in their homeland.
Three people were killed and dozens of others disappeared in a shipwreck in December off Matancita beach, located in the northeastern Dominican Republic, while trying to reach Puerto Rico.
About 30 people managed to swim ashore, emergency management officials said.
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.”