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Smugglers Swell Migrants' Numbers

Border Patrol agents are increasingly challenged as they face well-organized smuggling rings that ferry desperate migrants -- most from the Dominican Republic -- to Puerto Rico.


May 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

CABO ROJO, Puerto Rico - In the dead of night, Juanita Martínez Rodríguez boarded a small wooden boat with at least five other people and hid under a blanket.

During the eight-hour trip from her native Dominican Republic to this seaside village, Martínez could hear the captain shouting, ``We'll be there soon . . . We're almost there . . . I can see land.''

Then came the dreaded words: ``We've been caught.''

Martínez was apprehended by agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, along with six others from a second boat that landed seven hours later on a beach in Aguadilla. But more than half of the migrants traveling on both boats managed to get away, despite a three-hour search by the agents through thick mangroves, palm trees and thorny bushes.

The catch-me-if-you can scenario has become increasingly challenging for Border Patrol agents in Puerto Rico as they compete against well-organized smuggling rings that ferry desperate migrants here in record numbers aboard banana-shaped boats known as yolas.

The other five migrants in Martinez' boat quickly disappeared upon landfall shortly before 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday. Woozy and cold, Martínez was too slow getting out of the yola and ended up in a holding cell at the municipal police department before Border Patrol agents transported her to a detention facility in Aguadilla, an hour's drive away.

''I don't know where everybody went,'' said Martínez, 25. ``All of a sudden, I was alone.''


The total number of migrants caught trying to enter Puerto Rico illegally over the last six months has skyrocketed. Just since October, some 6,000 migrants have been detained on land or interdicted at sea, compared with 3,477 in a 12-month period the previous year.

''I don't have a problem with people coming, but there's a right way and wrong way,'' senior Border Patrol agent Larry Niedzialek said as he searched through mangroves for migrants. ``This is not right. It's a slap in the face to all those people who fill out the paperwork and stand in long lines at the U.S. embassies.

``Plus, you never know who might be coming across in one of these boats. Ninety percent are just coming here to look for a better life. It's the other 10 percent you have to worry about.''

Most of the migrants caught in Puerto Rico are Dominicans trying to escape a sluggish economy, rising unemployment and soaring inflation. And authorities fear that the hotly contested presidential elections there on May 16 may trigger political turmoil and another hike in illegal departures from the Caribbean nation, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti -- another troubled country.

There are widespread rumors in the Dominican Republic that the elections will be tainted with fraud in an attempt to re-elect President Hipolito Mejía. But even if former President Leonel Fernandez, who is leading in the polls, returns to the job, there's little faith among those fleeing that he can do much to boost the economy and raise the standard of living.

''The situation over there is very bad,'' said Ramón Geraldino, 46, who was among six Dominicans caught in the recent boat landing in Aguadilla. ``The economy is on the floor. What you earn isn't enough to pay for anything. Everything is very expensive.''

''This is the second time I try to make it here,'' said Geraldino, who works odd jobs to support three children, ages 21, 19 and 13.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. Commonwealth, has long been used as a trampoline by illegal entrants who want to get to Miami, New York and other cities in the mainland.

Border Patrol does what it can to secure the shorelines of an island that is about 100 miles long and 35 wide, roughly the size of Connecticut. With only about 25 agents, it relies heavily on the Coast Guard and other federal and local law enforcement for support.

In Cabo Rojo, local police initially nabbed Martínez, then handed her over to the Border Patrol. The agency is responsible for apprehending all migrants who make landfall and processing the paperwork associated with their arrival. Most of the Dominicans are quickly repatriated.


''My children are going through too many difficulties,'' Martínez said from behind bars at the municipal police office. ``I came to work -- sweep, clean, anything.''

''I don't know what I'm going to do now, '' she said, pulling a sweater over her bare legs. ``I'd like to stay here but they [Border Patrol] said I can't.''

The busiest region for authorities is along the west coast of Puerto Rico, about 80 miles from the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. In a stretch of about 35 miles, at least eight abandoned yolas can be spotted from the air.

''There is no formula,'' said David Rodríguez, the Border Patrol's sole pilot. ``The smugglers try to get in any time of the day. They adjust their patterns, we adjust ours.''

The smugglers charge between $1,000 and $1,500 for the trip, which can last from one to three days, depending on sea conditions, the boat's motor power and passenger load.

Martínez, who lives in Mao, a town in the northwest region of the Dominican Republic, said she made arrangements through a friend to borrow money to pay for the trip.

She had dreamed of becoming a pediatrician. But two years ago, her father died and she dropped out of school to support her family. Her monthly $35 salary, she said, goes to her neighborhood grocery store to pay off a running tab. Now, she faces another debt: ``I paid [the smugglers] but now I owe the people who I borrowed the money from.''

Giraldino, who was on the boat that landed in Aguadilla, was caught sleeping under mangroves near the yola to recover from the 15-hour journey. ''I'll probably try again,'' he said. ``There is no life over there.''

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