The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coast Guard searching for 39 people off Florida coast after suspected smuggling boat capsizes

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bernard C. Webber on July 19 in Miami Beach, Fla. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The U.S. Coast Guard was searching Tuesday for 39 people missing after their boat reportedly capsized over the weekend off Florida in a suspected human-smuggling venture.

A good Samaritan rescued a man clinging to the hull of a boat about 45 miles east of Fort Pierce Inlet, according to the Coast Guard. The man told authorities that the boat encountered severe weather on its voyage from Bimini in the Bahamas and capsized, stranding the 40 people aboard.

In response to questions from The Washington Post about the search and the missing, Clint Watson, a spokesman for Bahamian Prime Minister Philip “Brave” Davis, said the country “has no involvement in that incident.”

The Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association, a voluntary organization that assists the Royal Bahamas Defense Force with its sea rescues, is not involved in this search, as Bahamians would not deploy to the Gulf Stream, the powerful ocean current moving along the East Coast, said Capt. Chris Lloyd, the association’s operations manager.

Lloyd said the drift of the water and the lack of an immediate SOS call after the boat overturned could hinder a search effort in an area that he said covered a large stretch of sea.

“When you’re not traveling with safety equipment, you’re not able to get that information out that you need assistance,” Lloyd said.

A possible rescue would be complicated by the length of time the passengers have been stuck at sea. Coast Guard spokeswoman Nicole Groll declined to say whether the operation was considered a recovery mission at this point. It isn’t known where the boat overturned.

National Weather Service forecaster Chuck Caracozza said waves in a Saturday night storm about 20 nautical miles offshore reached seven to nine feet, with winds reaching 10 to 20 knots.

The Coast Guard said in a statement that human smuggling is suspected. These types of sea voyages can be risky, as smugglers often navigate treacherous ocean conditions in makeshift vessels. The passengers are often vulnerable people exploited by criminal networks hoping to profit from misinformation and misfortune.

As Haiti’s crisis worsens, a rising number flee by sea: ‘There is nothing for me here’

In 2021, the State Department reported that the high unemployment rate during the coronavirus pandemic may have exacerbated the smuggling crisis, as traffickers recruit migrants through false offers of employment. In the Bahamas, people without Bahamian citizenship, such as people born to a non-Bahamian father, are at heightened risk of trafficking, as well as those displaced by hurricanes.

The islands have become a steppingstone for smugglers from Caribbean countries, such as Haiti, whose final destination is Florida.

Since 2014, at least 967 migrants have reportedly disappeared during the voyages in the Caribbean, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM). However, that does not account for the many vessels that go undetected, given the “secret” nature of these sea voyages and the remoteness of the routes, IOM said in a statement.

“The growing number of migrants’ deaths in the region is highly alarming,” said Michele Klein Solomon, IOM’s regional director for Central and North America and the Caribbean.

“Saving lives is an absolute priority,” Klein Solomon added. “The families of those missing migrants need answers, and those politically responsible need better information and data to guarantee a safe and dignified migration for everyone.”

This report is breaking and will be updated.