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Survivor of ill-fated migrant voyage: Smugglers promise easy trip to U.S., but ‘it’s all a lie’

Juan Esteban reunited with his mother in Miami on Jan. 30. He was the sole person to survive a capsized boat carrying migrants. His sister did not survive. (Video: The law office of Naimeh Salem)

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — The siblings living in a small Colombian city hit hard by the nation’s economic downturn and decades of civil conflict first got the idea to reunite with their mother in the United States on the Internet.

Traveling through Central America and crossing at the Mexico border was dangerous, they heard. But flying into the Bahamas — where no visa was required — and then going on two relatively short boat rides to Florida offered a quicker, seemingly less risky route.

The smugglers offering migrants such as Juan Esteban Montoya Caicedo, 22, and his sister, María Camila, 18, a shot at the American Dream promised life jackets and a good boat.

“They tell you you’ll be in Miami in three, four hours,” Juan Esteban said. “It’s all a lie.”

On Monday, the sole survivor of a doomed trip from Bimini to Florida achieved part of his dream. Immigration officials decided not to detain him, allowing him to join his mother in the United States while he seeks political asylum. But alongside the relief was immense grief: The sister he hoped to start a new life with did not survive the journey.

Two siblings tried reaching the U.S. by sea to reunite with their mother. Only one of them made it.

U.S. Coast Guard officials suspended their search Thursday for at least 35 people believed missing after the boat capsized hours after departing from an island 50 miles from Miami — one of the deadliest migrant disasters off the eastern Florida coast in years. Authorities found five bodies, but not María Camila. Her brother says that they lost each other when the boat overturned and that she drowned. He managed to cling to the overturned vessel for two days until his rescue.

“I had to live, they had to rescue me, because I had to tell my parents what happened,” he said from a hotel conference room after his release, often holding his mother’s hand.

The ill-fated trip has put a spotlight on a brewing migration crisis in the Caribbean. U.S. and Bahamian coast guard officers are finding ships on a weekly basis with as many as 200 people aboard — most of them from Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Many of the ships are overcrowded and in poor condition, and while a good number are caught, the United Nations estimates that at least 967 people have vanished into Caribbean waters between 2014 and 2021.

In a worrying sign, officers in the Bahamas are now also finding people like Juan Esteban from as far away as Colombia — a nation where residents fled by the thousands during the height of the civil conflict, but usually by plane. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has opened a criminal probe to determine who was behind the operation to smuggle the Colombian siblings and dozens of others to the United States aboard a ship that lost motor power hours after departing.

“They’re victims,” Juan Esteban’s attorney, Naimeh Salem, said of her client and his sister. “These people put too many people on a boat, without life vests.”

Juan Esteban and his sister, he said, were lured by the promise that the trip would be safe. They had not seen their mother, Marcia Caicedo, since she left 11 years earlier. As the pandemic shut down the world in 2020, Colombia’s economy nosedived, contracting by more than 6 percent. Despite a peace accord to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict in 2016, dissident guerrillas are still a powerful force in long-neglected parts of the country. The chief prosecutor’s office has issued warnings in recent years about rebel presence in the same region where the siblings lived.

Despite the distance, the siblings had daily contact with their mother. Most mornings started with a call or text message from Houston, where Caicedo worked as a housecleaner and later got by cooking and selling Colombian food such as tamales. Their maternal grandparents took charge of raising them, teaching Juan Esteban and María Camila the same values as their mother. Their mother helped them make ends meet by sending items to resell in Colombia — sought-after American clothing brands and sweets for a candy business.

María Camila wasn’t one to take risks, her brother said. Quiet but charismatic, she was studying industrial engineering and “liked to do things right.” Juan Esteban helped his grandfather, who grew corn for a living, while finishing a degree in business. Still, they longed for three things they couldn’t find in Colombia: to better their lives, their safety and their mother.

“The situation in Colombia had them desperate,” Caicedo said.

The siblings were well-known in their hometown of Guacarí, about 30 miles northeast of Cali, but they told few about their decision to try to reach the United States, Juan Esteban said. They confided in their father, who he said discouraged them from taking the risky journey. But they were driven — boarding a flight soon after to the Bahamas, intent on arriving in Florida by sea.

Landing in a prime Caribbean tourist destination was the first step in the journey. From there, they boarded a boat to Bimini. Citing security reasons, Juan Esteban declined to say how much the siblings paid or who promised to get them to the United States. The first boat ride was easy. The turquoise waters were warm, the waves small. They arrived in a couple hours.

The second ship, departing from one of the westernmost isles of the Bahamas, felt riskier from the start. Despite being promised a boat that would not be overloaded, Juan Esteban said, there were at least 35 people aboard the ship. Among them: men and women from Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas. Only the ones from the Dominican Republic spoke Spanish. One woman carried a baby girl. The organizers did not provide life vests.

“That seemed bad to me,” Juan Esteban said, his skin darkened by days under the sun. “But I had such a desire to get to the country.”

They cast off Saturday about 10 p.m., the siblings seated together in the crowded boat. Several hours later, Florida was still nowhere to be seen. In the darkness, the motor stopped working. The waves got bigger, crashing water into the boat. The two huddled together, prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe and a saint said to grant miracles in their father’s hometown.

If the vessel overturned, he told his sister, hold on to the boat.

The sun was beginning to rise when a final wave tossed them all overboard. In the panicked moments afterward, he said the migrants tried to hold on to one another. He initially spotted his sister, but she was pulled under the water as he tried to get to her. He screamed her name. He swam under and around the boat. He could not find her.

“I looked and looked,” he said. “It was impossible.”

About 15 people initially survived, he said, and for a time they all held on to the overturned boat, finding it warmer to stay in the water than on the hull, where they were exposed to cold air. Two of the smugglers — both wearing life vests — were picked up by another boat, Juan Esteban’s attorney said. They promised to come back but never did.

One by one, those left in the water began drifting away, some apparently dying, others so exhausted they didn’t have the strength to hold on any longer, he said.

By early Monday evening, nearly two days after departing, he was alone.

Famished, dehydrated and injured from being repeatedly smacked by the boat, he said he was barely conscious when a tugboat crew spotted him the next morning. He was seated atop the hull and didn’t see the ship until it was practically next to him.

“I don’t know who they are,” he said of his rescuers, but “they’re angels.”

An image of Juan Esteban perched on the overturned ship, alone in the rolling sea, soon began circulating on social media — making him a symbol of the dangerous quest to reach the United States. In the week since, most of his days have been confined to a hospital bed. But on Sunday night, Customs and Border Protection allowed him to see his mother.

Before a framed image of the U.S. flag, the two wept as they embraced.

Most of those caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard or good Samaritans are deported to their country of origin or the one they departed from. Juan Esteban’s attorney said he was allowed to stay in the country while the case is sorted out — a process that could take years.

An ICE spokesman declined to comment on what grounds he was released, saying only that it is part of an ongoing investigation and that the agency is “focusing strictly on individual who are responsible for this crime.”

For now, he’ll attempt to start a new life in Houston.

His mother wants the U.S. Coast Guard to keep looking for her daughter. She can’t stand the idea that she is gone, and the thought of it is harder with each passing day. Juan Esteban, for his part, hopes others take from his story a message: Don’t flee by sea.

“It broke my heart in two,” he said, “and took part of it away.”

Paulina Villegas in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Read more:

Two siblings tried reaching the U.S. by sea to reunite with their mother. Only one of them made it.

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

‘People will always come’: Inside a Haitian’s journey without end