We were having a quiet dinner at a Washington hotel when the conversation turned to the deaths at sea of the migrants coming from Africa to Italy.
"This happens all the time in the waters between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and the press never covers it," said the former Border Patrol agent.
"There are about 80 miles of open sea between the island of Hispaniola (that's Haiti and the DR) and the west coast of Puerto Rico; it is called Mona Passage because of the uninhabited island in the middle of it, Mona," he continued. "There are lots of yolas that take illegal aliens from DR to Puerto Rico, and a lot of them don't make it."
"Yola" is the term used by the Border Patrol to describe the hastily constructed, shoddy wooden boats, usually with a single outboard motor, built for this trade. Coast Guard press releases call them "rustic vessels". Yolas are typically jammed, shoulder to shoulder, with a hundred or so migrants; sometimes they are lost at sea; sometimes they are captured in the open waters by either the Coast Guard or the Border Patrol.
"At night sometimes you can smell them before you see them," he said. "They usually have been at sea for 12 or 16 hours or more and no one can move around, so they vomit or whatever right there in their seats."
He went on to describe the problems and the dangers involved to the rescuers when seeking to help the passengers in the dark.
"You can't just tow them to safety; a rope to these ships would tear them apart and dump everyone in the water. They have no life vests and none of them can swim." He continued, "so you have to come alongside, even in heavy weather, and load them into your own by then overcrowded vessel. Among them will be one or two smugglers, who would just as soon throw you in the water."
Although the press coverage of this immigration problem is minimal, sometimes the government issues press releases on coyotes dumping illegal aliens on Mona, or worse, on nearby Desecheo Island, which is totally without people or drinking water, but full of unexploded munitions left over from bombing practice during World War II. For more on that godforsaken place, see this posting from a couple of years ago. Both of these islands are considered to be part of Puerto Rico.