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Their plan to brave the rough waters in an overloaded boat in the hopes of reaching Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, turned out to be a fatal mistake.
Rescuers scouring the white-capped waters off the Dominican Republic's coast have found 17 bodies and 13 survivors from a boat overloaded with migrants that capsized almost two days ago, officials said.
The boat carrying about 70 migrants from the Dominican Republic capsized before dawn Saturday morning and rescuers said hopes were fading for finding more survivors as search efforts were suspended because of darkness late Sunday.
"Tomorrow the sea will start to return the bodies," said Jeffrey Pimentel, head of firefighters at Sabana del Mar, 95 miles (150 kilometers) northeast of Santo Domingo.
Luis Castro, intelligence director of the Dominican Navy, said the bodies of 12 men and five women have been found. Thirteen survivors were rescued. The suspected captain of the smuggler's boat has been detained, he said.
Castro said that rescue efforts would resume Monday morning, but "it is difficult for anyone to survive two days swimming" under a burning sun.
Survivors said dozens of people plunged into the water when the boat, known as a "yola," capsized. Passengers grabbed at anything that might help keep them afloat.
The illegal migrants apparently were all Dominicans, but authorities could not rule out that a few Cubans or Haitians might also have been on the boat.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which had helped Dominican rescuers by sea and air since mid-Saturday, suspended its search at noon Sunday "after Dominican authorities said they no longer needed our assistance," said Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad in Puerto Rico.
Arismendy Manzueta, a 28-year-old farmer from the northern town of La Jagua who survived the journey, said the hopes of better economic prospects in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico made him risk his life aboard the overloaded boat. Puerto Rico is a common destination for Dominican migrants.
"Things are very bad here. A person works and works and never has nothing," Manzueta said in a public hospital in Sabana de la Mar.
Manzueta said he did not tell his wife, who sat by his hospital bed, that he would try to sneak into the relatively wealthy Puerto Rico.
Maria Sobeida Guzman, a 28-year-old mother of three who also survived the journey, said she paid just over $1,000 for the illegal trip to Puerto Rico, where a cousin promised to get her a job giving manicures.
"What is one going to do? A person wants to improve," said an exhausted Guzman from her hospital bed.
Guzman said there was no warning when the boat overturned and began to break apart in the pre-dawn darkness. She remembered swimming for the shore with every bit of strength she had.
Another survivor, Luis Cortorreal, a 31-year-old painter who swam for six hours until he made it to land, said there were at least 10 women on the overloaded boat, including a pregnant woman he is convinced sank beneath the waves.
Survivors told the northern region's public prosecutor Fremy Reyes that the boat overturned about four hours after setting sail Friday just before midnight.
On Sunday, taxi driver Nicolas Moreno joined several other people congregated on Sabana de la Mar's main beach hoping for word about a missing loved one. Moreno said he believes that two close friends left on the doomed smuggler's boat.
"They wanted a better life for their children," Moreno said.
Thousands of poor Dominicans try to reach Puerto Rico in open boats that are ill-suited to the treacherous journey across the 160-mile (260-kilometer) Mona Passage. Many Haitian and Cuban migrants also regularly risk their lives trying to cross the often-stormy passage.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.