Coast Guard, Bahamians in frantic search for Haitian migrants

U.S. Coast Guard and Bahamian officials say their search and recovery operation will resume early Wednesday for an undetermined number of Haitian migrants feared dead after their wooden sailboat ran aground and overturned off the coast of the Bahamas.

At least 30 bodies were recovered Tuesday.

At the same time, crews hope to rescue a second group of stranded Haitians who were spotted Tuesday on Ragged Island, also in the Bahamas. The island is about 90 miles south of where crews were scrambling to recover the bodies of the migrants near Harvey Cay.

The simultaneous Haitian migrant smuggling operations have become common lately as Bahamian and U.S. officials report an increase of undocumented Haitians trying to enter the United States. On Nov. 12, one U.S. Coast Guard crew rescued 171 Haitians from a 40-foot sailboat in Bahamian waters as another crew rescued 68 migrants off the coast of Haiti.

The bodies of at least 30 Haitians were recovered Tuesday by the U.S. Coast Guard and about 100 were rescued from their capsized 40-foot sloop. The group, severely dehydrated, was taken to New Providence.

“So far, Bahamian authorities can account for 110 survivors,” Elcott Coleby, deputy director of the Bahamas government information office, told the Miami Herald.

The boat flipped sometime overnight Monday near Harvey Cay in the Exuma chain, about 200 miles southeast of Miami. Crews initially recovered the bodies of three Haitians and brought 13 survivors to shore by midday, said Lt. Origin Deleveaux of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force.

He said authorities did not know how many died, and were still searching.

A source familiar with the search and rescue operation told the Herald that the events began Friday after a fisherman reported spotting a Haitian-style fishing boat in Bahamian waters. Royal Bahamas Defense Force officers searched unsuccessfully for the boat, but a tip then led police to Twin Cay, where six Haitian men were spotted waving for help.

Bahamian Police Superintendent Macktavaus Daniels said the men told his officers they had been aboard a boat that overturned nearby. U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force were soon deployed. A defense force crew reached the boat in shallow waters early Tuesday.

Strong winds may have played a role in the boat’s capsizing after running up a bank. Continued windy conditions could hinder Wednesday’s recovery efforts, defense force officials said.

A marine forecast for the central Bahamas warned boaters to remain in port Monday “due to hazardous seas and . . . dangerous rip currents.” A small-craft advisory was in effect, with wind gusts reaching gale-force levels and waves swelling above 12 feet.

Officials said they believed that the Haitians whose bodies were recovered Tuesday died from dehydration and starvation, not from downing. Their boat left Haiti on Nov. 18.

Coast Guard stations in Miami Beach and Clearwater as well as the Royal Bahamas Defense Force airdropped food, supplies and life rafts.

It was the second time in recent weeks that the Coast Guard had responded to a fatal boating incident involving Haitian migrants.

Four Haitian women died when the 25-foot fishing boat in which they were being smuggled capsized seven miles off Miami Beach on Oct. 16. Several non-Haitians have been charged in that case, including murder charges against the boat’s Bahamian captain and his Jamaican assistant.

Authorities have noticed an increase in the number of smuggler-operated boats bringing undocumented migrants from countries other than Cuba to South Florida in the past three years.

Meanwhile, Bahamian officials say 1,550 Haitian migrants have been received or intercepted by authorities in the Bahamas this year, already surpassing last year’s total of 1,477.

Haiti has been rocked by political uncertainty over delayed legislative and local elections, and a rising cost of living.

An anti-government protest last week against President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe was one of the largest to date, with more than 5,000 protesters in Port-au-Prince demanding Martelly’s resignation. Police shut down an equally vociferous protest in Cap-Haitian by using tear gas on protesters. Another protest is planned for Friday.

Many smuggling voyages toward South Florida originate in the Bahamas, carrying migrants from as far away as Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia. Some of the migrants also start out in Haiti or the Dominican Republic, making their way to the Bahamas to board smuggling boats for the final leg to Florida.

In some cases, small boats overloaded with migrants begin their trips in Haiti. That was the case in the fatal voyage that ended Oct. 16 off Miami’s Government Cut. The boat carried 15 migrants, some of whom started in the northwestern Haitian coastal city of Port-de-Paix, one of the survivors told the Herald.

The survivor said the smugglers had promised to transfer the migrants to a larger boat in the Bahamas, but that never happened. The boat did stop in the Bahamas, but only to pick up more migrants, according to an affidavit filed in Miami federal court.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Evan S. Benn contributed to this report.