- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

ABOARD THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER KEY BISCAYNE — Slicing through whitecapped swells between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico this month, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter patrolled for Dominican migrants trying to reach U.S. shores.

Authorities caught more Dominican boat people in January 2004 than they did in all of last year, signaling growing desperation in a nation struggling through its worst economic crisis in decades.

The surge has prompted the United States to deploy more ships and aircraft in the Caribbean, where short-staffed agencies are expected to do search-and-rescue missions, hunt for drug traffickers, protect fisheries and guard against terrorist threats to cruise ships and oil refineries.

“We’re seeing something like we’ve never seen before,” said Coast Guard Lt. John Morkan, 35, aboard the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Key Biscayne cutter, which arrived last month with 18 crew members on a 35-day deployment in the Mona Passage.

“The means of migrant smuggling have stayed the same, but we’re seeing a lot more from the Dominican Republic,” Lt. Morkan said.

A decade ago, it was a Haitian exodus that helped spur a U.S. invasion of Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Despite worse economic conditions in Haiti, Dominicans last month began fleeing in far greater numbers and overtook Haitians as the largest number of boat people in the region.

Dominican President Hipolito Mejia’s popularity has plunged as his people have watched the Dominican peso lose more than half its value in the past year and prices of gasoline and food nearly double.

The national debt, meanwhile, has ballooned from $3.7 billion at the end of 2000 to $7.6 billion in December.

Scandals have scared away investors. In May, one of the largest Dominican banks collapsed and two nearly went bankrupt when investigators discovered that executives were using shadow companies to give themselves millions of dollars. An estimated $2 billion was reported lost.

But politics rarely spill below deck on the 110-foot Coast Guard cutters, whose crew members pass time popping sea-sickness tablets, smoking, and watching films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

To avoid detection and protect the crew’s night vision, the cutters use only red bulbs to illuminate cabins at night. Smokers take clandestine drags as colleagues take shifts watching the radar.

There is no easy explanation for the recent surge in migrants — 1,502 intercepted at sea in January, compared with 180 in December — but authorities say smugglers have become better organized and people more desperate. Through all of the past year, the Coast Guard detained 1,469 Dominicans.

Another reason could be that Dominicans saved extra dollars sent by relatives in the United States at Christmas, allowing more to pay the $225 to $500 demanded by smugglers to cross the 70-mile waterway that separates the Dominican Republic from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

In the last week of January, the Coast Guard intercepted nearly 350 Dominicans crammed aboard two wooden motorboats called “yolas.” Normally, boats carry a couple of dozen people. When caught, the boat people are returned home.

If they make it, Dominicans often find work in Puerto Rico as maids, taxi drivers and construction workers — jobs that pay four times more than those back home.

It is not known how many make it, or how many die trying.

The Coast Guard says at least 21 Dominican boat refugees have died since Oct. 1.

Migrants often set out at night aboard rickety wooden boats painted blue and black to mask them from helicopters. The journey can take days.

Francisco Miranda, 47, was one of the lucky ones. Leaving from Miches, 75 miles east of Santo Domingo, he set out on a 40-foot yola with 79 persons in 1990.

He paid $125 for the journey and took two days to reach Puerto Rico. He said three persons died on the way.

“You lose your senses out there. The waves are huge. People were vomiting, going to the bathroom,” said Mr. Miranda, back in the Dominican Republic after being deported.

“You could pay me and I wouldn’t go again.”

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