The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

A lone survivor found sitting on a capsized boat off Fort Pierce Inlet, Fla., earlier this week was identified Friday, Jan. 28, as a Colombian named Juan Esteban Montoya Caicedo. His sister, María Camila, was among the more than 30 people who were believed to have drowned. ((U.S. Coast Guard/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock))
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From their small town in Colombia, the two siblings had long dreamed of reuniting with their mother in the United States.

Juan Esteban and María Camila Montoya Caicedo had been separated from her for over a decade, but the mother in Texas remained a strong presence in her children’s lives. She called often, sent them toys when they were young, and shipped clothes to María Camila for the teenager to sell in their community in Valle del Cauca, Colombia, their friends and family members said.

Earlier this month, the 22-year-old brother and 18-year-old sister set off on a risky journey to meet their mother in the United States, flying first to the Bahamas. On Saturday, they boarded a boat in Bimini and headed toward Florida. At some point during their voyage by sea, the siblings texted their mother to tell her they were on their way, the family’s lawyer said.

Three days later, the captain and crew of a commercial tugboat spotted a man sitting on top of a capsized boat in the Caribbean, gripping onto a rope. Dehydrated and disoriented, he told authorities the boat carrying 40 people had capsized in rough weather shortly after leaving Bimini.

On Friday, family and officials in Colombia and the family’s lawyer in the United States confirmed Juan Esteban was that man. Juan Esteban’s younger sister — the best friend he always sought to protect — was nowhere to be seen.

An image shared of the sole survivor perched above the boat’s hull, alone in the sea, was shared in newspapers and on social media across the globe this week, a somber reminder of the perils migrants often face in their journey to the United States.

Authorities have not released any details on who was aboard the boat, and the U.S. Coast Guard suspended the search Thursday with just five bodies found. But slowly, a picture of two of those on the boat is coming together, as friends and relatives in Colombia and the United States try to make sense of how the siblings ended up lost in the waters off Florida, far from home and their mother.

“There is no comfort or solace for this pain,” Marcia Caicedo told The Washington Post as she waited for news of her children Friday in Miami. “All I ask is for the release of my boy so that we can hold each other.”

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On Friday, Juan Esteban lay in a hospital bed in Florida, in the custody of Border Patrol authorities. And thousands of miles south, in the Colombian town of Guacarí, a community held a vigil. They pleaded for his release — and prayed that authorities might somehow find his sister.

“It is not fair that he is detained, with everything he went through, after experiencing the trauma of seeing people die, and enduring what he did for days, the sun, the hunger,” their cousin, Valeria Molina, said. “We are begging authorities to release him and help us find Camila.”

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that a relative first contacted the consulate in Miami on Monday to report the missing siblings. In the days since, U.S. authorities informed Colombian officials that María Camila had died, according to a statement from the foreign ministry.

Naimeh Salem, Juan Esteban Montoya’s attorney, said Friday that her client will likely be transferred to a detention center as soon as Monday. She said she plans to ask authorities to grant him humanitarian parole, which would allow him to be released to his mother until his case is resolved. U.S. authorities have not yet said whether he will be allowed to stay in the United States; most migrants caught at sea are returned to their country of origin or embarkation.

Salem said that although he was recovering well from severe dehydration, Montoya is tormented by the trauma of watching people die before his eyes and losing his sister.

“Physically he is healthy, mentally he is not doing well,” Salem said. “What he endured is extremely difficult to overcome.”

If all but one of the 40 passengers believed to be aboard perished, it would be one of the worst migrant sea tragedies in the Caribbean in recent years.

The tragedy comes as U.S. authorities and immigration advocates warn of a rising number of migrants from countries including Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic making dangerous voyages by sea amid economic hardship, the coronavirus pandemic and political instability. Migrants trying to reach Florida by sea from Colombia are far less common, though authorities in the Bahamas have reported recent cases, and border apprehensions of Colombians trying to migrate to the United States have been rising.

“It’s too early to say whether we’re starting to see a new trend,” said William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the southwestern Colombian town of Guacarí, about 30 miles northeast of Cali, the siblings were described as beloved members of the community. Jhon Mario Cano, 23, said Juan Esteban and María Camila were his neighbors while growing up. Most friends called the older brother “Juanes” for short, or “Panes,” as an inside joke about a time he once bought way too much bread.

The siblings’ mother said she left Colombia 11 years ago in search of a better life. Her children lived with their grandmother, and their father would visit often. Juan Esteban went on to work in agriculture, growing corn, while María Camila was a college student.

The two siblings were always close, Cano said, and even looked similar. “She was Juan Esteban but with hair,” he said. And the older brother was always protective of María Camila, worrying about her if she stayed out late, Cano said.

Juan Esteban often talked about his goal of traveling outside of Colombia. He dreamed of visiting the beaches of the Caribbean, and of experiencing the American culture he had always heard about — the music, the clothes, the people.

“Guacarí is like one huge family,” Andrés Felipe Montoya Frades, the siblings’ uncle, said after the vigil. “The whole town is mourning.”

While it’s unclear how many Colombians are traveling to the United States by sea, U.S. apprehensions of Colombian migrants grew tenfold at the U.S. border with Mexico between May and December, according to an analysis of Customs and Border Protection figures by the Washington Office on Latin America.

It is an unusual uptick for a country known most recently as a destination for migrants and refugees — particularly from neighboring Venezuela. Colombia’s migrants generally traveled to the United States by air, often to South Florida, and mostly during the country’s 52-year armed conflict. Five years after Colombia signed historic peace accords with its largest guerrilla group, violence between armed groups in rural swaths of the country is surging once again. Killings of social leaders and environmental activists are raising alarm. And the pandemic pushed 1.6 million Colombians out of the middle class and into poverty.

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Luis Victoria, an immigration attorney in Miami, said that his firm has seen a sharp increase in calls from Colombian nationals — mostly middle-class professionals — wanting to legally migrate to the United States.

Adam Isacson, a border security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, suspected the increase in border apprehensions of Colombians could be due to smuggling networks taking advantage of the fact that Mexico doesn’t require visas for Colombians. Migrants can fly to Mexico City or Cancún and take a bus to the border.

“It’s happened over the past year with Brazilians, Ecuadorians and Venezuelans, and in each case the U.S. leaned on Mexico to reinstate visa requirements for those countries,” Isacson said. “I think it’s just a matter of time for Colombians.”

In Guacarí, community members packed into a Catholic church Thursday night for a Mass in honor of the siblings. They listened as a priest spoke of Juan Esteban’s stunning survival. His resilience, the priest said, was testament to his faith.

“Being alone in the sea at night is frightening, anguishing,” the priest said. “Enduring the cold at night and intense heat during the day. It is a miracle that he is alive.”

“He held tight onto life,” he added, and asked the congregation to pray for María Camila and all of those lost at sea.

After the Mass, friends, neighbors and relatives gathered in the town’s main park and bowed their heads in prayer, holding candles and balloons. Others, meanwhile, took to social media, begging the country’s vice president and foreign minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez, to work with U.S. authorities to release Juan Esteban. Colombia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it remains in contact with the family, offering them assistance and legal advice.

“It is a horrible mix of feelings,” Molina, the siblings’ cousin, said Thursday night, after learning authorities had suspended their search. “On the one hand we are sad that she didn’t possibly make it; but we are also stunned and delighted to know that he survived.”

Cano said he last spoke to Juan Esteban on Friday, a day before he left the Bahamas. His friend sent him a picture over WhatsApp of the moon overlooking a dark beach.

When Cano asked for more pictures, Juan Esteban responded, “tomorrow, brother, we’re already in bed.”

“Do it, brother,” Cano said in a WhatsApp message. “The important thing is that it makes me so happy that you’re reuniting with your mom, brother. I wish you all of the happiness.”

“Thanks, my brother,” Juan Esteban responded. “God bless you and take care.”

Samantha Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia.

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