Disasters & Accidents

4 Dominican migrants heading for US missing in shipwreck

By Manuel Perez Bella

Bani, Dominican Republic, Feb 3 (EFE).- The city of Bani in the Dominican Republic once again has been hit by the migration crisis, with at least four local residents missing after their boat sank off the Florida coast while trying to travel illegally to the United States.

Last December, about 10 migrants from Bani died when the truck they were riding in flipped over on a road in southern Mexico.

The migrants missing in the shipwreck, three men and a woman, paid between $18,000 and $20,000 per person to a man who provided them with air tickets to The Bahamas and Bahamian visas and was the middleman for the payment to a “coyote” – that is, a people smuggler – who said he would take them by boat to the US, according to what relatives of the missing told EFE, some of them adding that they didn’t expect their loved ones to turn up alive.

Without any news since Jan. 22 from her son Wilkin Mendez, Juana Emilia Perez has been praying seated in the patio of her home, where she has set up an altar with candles, asking the saints to keep her boy alive.

The family lives in Boca Canasta, a middle class sector in southern Bani, a city located some 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Santo Domingo where the main economic activity is agriculture and which recently became one of the main points of departure for migrants.

Wilkin, whose 19th birthday will be on Friday, was in high school and worked in a grocery store, but he wanted to find better opportunities in the US and so he spent three months planning his trip, gathering the necessary money with help from his relatives and friends.

“A man from here encouraged them, he told them that the trips were safe. That’s how a lot of young people from here died … They filled the boy’s head with wild ideas. They got him to leave,” his mother said.

The family of Junior Pascual Santos holds out no hope that he is still alive, given that the only survivor of the shipwreck told them by telephone that he was the first to fall into the water.

Junior, 49, lived without papers in the US two decades ago and is the father of four US-born children, but the last time he tried to enter that country, a couple of years ago across the Mexican border, he was apprehended and deported.

That forced him to remain in the Dominican Republic for five years to legalize his situation, but “desperation” to reunite with his children spurred him to risk traveling illegally by boat to the US, one of his four sisters, Aura Santos, said.

He helped his family by sending home remittances, an important source of capital for the Dominican economy, which in 2021 saw $10.402 billion flow into the country, a record.

The victims’ families accuse the Dominican “coyote” of lying, of having promised to get them to the US by fastboat or on a yacht with only a few other people on board, but they were surprised to find themselves on a fragile craft packed far beyond its capacity with illegal migrants.

The organizer of the trip made by the three men – Junior Santos, Wilkin Mendez and Ricardo Lopez – told EFE by phone that, when he learned about the condition of the boat, he sent a voicemail message to the migrants warning them not to board it.

He also said that his responsibility was only to get the visas and organize the trip to The Bahamas, not the final leg of the journey to the US itself, adding that in the last six months he had managed to send about 14 other Dominicans to the US via the Bahamas route.

The fourth missing Dominican is Maritza Estefania Baez, a 31-year-old mother of three, who are now living with their grandmother Josefa Nidia Paniagua in Escondido, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Bani.

Maritza traveled to The Bahamas in early October and, after being for a time she met the other Bani residents at the house where she had been waiting for her travel date to the US.

She contacted her mother for the last time a day before the boat that sank set sail, but the family is still hoping she is alive, since the Bahamanian coyote told them that she did not make the trip.

Last December, 11 Dominicans, most of them from the Bani area, died in the truck accident in Chiapas, Mexico, in which 57 migrants perished.

The father of one of them, Manolo Carmona, tried to dissuade his son Edison from making the trip but was unable to get him to change his mind, and he said that the young man had decided not to remain in the Dominican Republic due to the lack of work opportunities there.

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