ILE DE LA TORTUE, Haiti -- Three times James Major tried to make it off this rustic island, where skeletons of wooden sailboats litter the rocky shoreline.
Three times he failed, turned back by U.S. and Bahamian authorities.
Still, the unemployed husband and father of two, who ate toothpaste and sipped saltwater to survive his latest harrowing attempt, says he’s ready to take the illegal journey again.
“Either you die here,” he says, “or you die trying.”
In recent months, dozens have died in crossings launched from these shores as trip organizers, or “managers,” prey on Haitians’ desire to escape this desperately poor country. That has created an opportunity for unscrupulous boat captains to once again turn La Tortue — and Haiti’s poorly patrolled northwest coastline — into a popular jumping-off point for clandestine migrant-smuggling operations into the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, and Florida.
The deadly voyages have marred almost every home in the village of Basse-Terre along the island’s southeastern coast. There’s the 9-year-old boy who wept as he begged his father, now deceased, not to go; the grandmother who now cares for 11 children, one of whom is disabled; and the young mother of seven who lost six relatives, including her husband.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Elmika Castin, 27, sitting in her front yard, surrounded by others who have lost loved ones. “All I am doing is suffering here.”
Castin said her husband and five cousins never told her they planned to leave on the morning of Nov. 18 when they went to check out rumors that a boat was departing. For days, she said, she suffered stomachaches and diarrhea awaiting word about them.
To outside observers, Ile de la Tortue, or Tortuga Island, shouldering Haiti’s northwest coast is a picturesque paradise of mangrove-lined, unspoiled beaches and breathtaking mountaintop views of the hand-built wooden sloops — feats of Haitian ingenuity — gliding through the blue channel separating the island from mainland Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
But to the 45,000 residents who call this often novelized, turtle-shaped speck home, it is anything but a romanticized haven. Ravaging hurricanes, persistent drought, grinding poverty and U.S. Coast Guard policy barring the island’s prized possessions from U.S. waters, have wreaked havoc on their livelihoods, islanders say.
“Life here isn’t easy,” said Wilson Alexis, 57, taking a break from constructing a wooden sailboat. “There are no visas being given, no commerce, and Jeanne and Hanna (hurricanes in 2004 and 2008) destroyed a lot of boats. Until now, no one has been able to help us recover the loss from those hurricanes.”
Life wasn’t always this bleak here, where even the beachfront hotels are closed and overfishing has left the surrounding waters barren.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, boat captain Evenio Alexandre and others survived by plying the trade route between Haiti and Miami, and the Bahamas. The boats ferried bicycles, rice and used clothing for resale, and sailors like Alexandre made about $300 a trip. Others transported Haitian-grown plantains, mangoes and other fresh produce to the Bahamas.
Then the U.S. Coast Guard in the late 1990s clamped down on the wooden sailboats, citing safety concerns: the boats’ tillers and masts are made of tree logs, there are no bathroom facilities, and the sails, which are about a $465 investment, are hand-sewn.
The governments of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands followed suit, saying the vessels weren’t seaworthy, and that they were running drugs.
“The minute they shut down the wooden boats, and said ‘no more,’ the island was sick,” said Alexandre, 65, who scrapes a living growing plantains and coconuts in a hillside garden, his wooden boat rotting nearby.
Alexandre said it’s easy to understand the renewed popularity of the dangerous journeys, which attract Haitians from as far away as the capital, 109 miles away. Migrants make the six-hour trek from Port-au-Prince by bus, then are ferried to the island from the nearby mainland city of Port-de-Paix.
Once here, they either hike or travel by motorcycle to any of more than a dozen departure points. And desperation trumps the risks.
“Everyone knows when a boat is leaving,” Major said.
The first time Major, 29, had his hopes for a new life dashed, he was within sight of the jagged coastlines of the southern Bahamas. The second time, he was picked up near Cuba. The third, last November, he almost starved to death after four food-less days aboard a capsized, overcrowded 40-foot sailboat off the Bahamas.
“If we had jobs, taking a boat to a foreign country wouldn’t even be considered an option,” he said, “but as long as we’re not working and a boat is leaving, it is always an option.”
Still, nothing could have prepared Major and the others for the terrifying mayhem that occurred when their sloop shipwrecked five days after leaving the nearby village of Carénage.
“By Saturday night, I had become distressed,” said Major, who after going through his $12 worth of energy drinks and crackers resorted to eating “Colgate and drinking saltwater” to live.
“There was no food, and people were just dying of hunger in front of you,” he said.
At least 30 people died, most of them from starvation. Among them was a local elected official. And in the midst of the anarchy, survivor Jonel Orelien said, the boat’s captain “was stabbed to death.”
During the four days the group spent before they were spotted by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, there were fights aboard, they said, as people scrambled for food and water. Some passengers “began doing a series of mystic rituals.”
In all, 111 were rescued. But Orelien, who worked as a sailor aboard the ship, said the captain told him there were 442 passengers. Some paid with money and livestock.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Bahamas Defense Force have no way of confirming the exact number because there is rarely, if ever, a passenger manifest.
After years of viewing illegal Haitian migration as groups of people getting together to escape political turmoil and economic hardship, U.S. authorities have begun to regard them as “criminal ventures.”
The recognition comes amid growing concern about the use of a circuitous, shorter but perhaps more dangerous route through the Mona Passage separating the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico by smugglers trying to get around the beefed up Coast Guard patrols in the Florida Straits.
“They are ruthless,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said of the smugglers. “What Haitians don’t anticipate is getting kicked out of the boat, 50 yards or several miles from shore and having to swim for it.”
The Coast Guard and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince have launched a public-service ad campaign warning Haitians not to be fooled by reckless racketeers.
“There are people out there who we don’t interdict . . . who do not make it and we don’t even know about,” said Fedor, chief of law enforcement for the seventh Coast Guard district in Miami. “Thousands try, hundreds die.”
Fifteen days after the ill-fated Nov. 18 trip, another boat left from La Tortue, residents said. All of those passengers were safely returned by the Cuban government. But a Christmas Day voyage into Turks and Caicos wasn’t as fortunate. At least 17 migrants died.
Last week, as the bodies of the 17 remained in the morgue in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the British dependent territory’s governor accused Haitian officials of not doing enough to stem the flow of illegal migration.
“The cost of interdiction and repatriation, over $1.2 million this year, is unacceptable to TCI,” the governor’s office said.
Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said his government is trying to address the desperate situation in the drought-prone northwest. Several projects are in the works, he said, including trying to sign an agreement with the Bahamas to purchase bananas from the region.
“At the end of the day it’s a jobs issue,” Lamothe told the Miami Herald. “They are going to the Bahamas, they are going to Turks and Caicos to help their families to have a decent job where they can earn a just living . . . if they could have a job they would not leave.”
But getting private companies or even foreign donors to invest in long-term job creation in Haiti isn’t easy.
Four years after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, the country is still struggling to get donors to deliver the $14 billion in aid they pledged.
“As long as there are no jobs, they will never give up. They have nothing to lose,” said Drazan Rozic, program manager with the International Organization for Migration in Haiti.
Last year, the United States ended funding for a migrant program that Rozic spearheaded in the north even as Coast Guard officials sounded the alarm over the deadly trend.
For weeks, Rozic has been shopping around a new, $5.1 million income-generating project, he said, aimed at keeping Haitians at home. So far, there are no takers among potential donors.
“Everybody agrees on the components, the methodology, and support the idea. It’s just a matter of figuring out who will pay for it,” Rozic said.
Sagesse-Fils Loriston, a local representative, said the island and its residents have been forgotten. There are no roads, no electricity and no latrines. There aren’t even docks or ports. Just four police offices patrol the island.
If Port-au-Prince is serious about stemming the flow of migration from here, Loriston said, it is easy.
“You reinforce security and create the conditions for the people, especially the young people, to less and less view the sea as an option,” he said. “The people, they are hungry and they are miserable.”