- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico — Jaime Francisco Mota Morla is one of thousands of Dominicans who have risked death on rough seas trying to reach Puerto Rico and escape their country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

At least 60 have died this year, and authorities say the number is probably higher. But Mr. Mota, 25, says he wasn’t deterred by the danger when he left his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris.

“Things are hard there,” said Mr. Mota, leaning against a chain-link fence at the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in this northwestern coastal town where he was being held. “I wanted to find a better life.”

The Dominican Republic’s annual inflation is near 30 percent and unemployment is at 16 percent. The country of 8.8 million also is plagued by blackouts. A U.S. dollar that cost 16 Dominican pesos in the 1990s now costs 45.

One result is that more than 7,000 Dominican migrants have been detained in Puerto Rico since Oct. 1, double the number for the previous 12 months.

At least 60 persons have been confirmed dead this year in the Mona Passage, a shark-infested nearly 100-mile-wide channel where strong Atlantic and Caribbean currents meet. There were nine confirmed migrant deaths in the Mona Passage in 2003, said Lt. Eric Willis, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman. But the numbers are likely higher.

“Hundreds of people have probably lost their lives in the last several months,” Lt. Willis said.

Coast Guard patrols were searching Wednesday for at least 70 migrants reported missing. Yesterday, the Dominican Consulate in Puerto Rico announced that 79 migrants had landed in Cuba.

“We receive reports at least on a weekly basis of family members claiming that their loved ones have not made it to Puerto Rico,” Lt. Willis said. “That is why we have a constant presence in the Mona Passage, knowing that people are making these dangerous trips in unseaworthy vessels.”

The State Department has tried to stem the flow by sponsoring ads on Dominican billboards, beer coasters and taxis. One poster shows coffins floating at sea and warns, in Spanish: “These illegal trips are trips to death.”

Mr. Mota, who is single, lived with his unemployed mother and earned $350 a month doing construction jobs and transporting passengers on a mo-ped. He said he wanted to study systems engineering, but couldn’t afford to enroll at a university.

He made the two-day trip to Puerto Rico’s west coast with no life jacket or food, in a small boat with 20 other migrants.

His quest for a new life ended July 29 when a Border Patrol agent caught him at a pay phone outside a convenience store in the southwestern town of Boqueron.

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