AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico -- Jaime Francisco Mota Morla is one of thousands of Dominicans who have risked death on rough seas to join a huge exodus of illegal migrants trying to reach Puerto Rico and escape their country's worst economic crisis in decades.
But Mota, 25, was not deterred by danger when he left his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris.
"Things are hard there," said Mota, leaning against a chain-link fence at the US Border Patrol headquarters in this northwestern coastal town where he was being held. "I wanted to find a better life."
The Dominican Republic's annual inflation rate is near 30 percent, unemployment is at 16 percent, and the country of 8.8 million is plagued by blackouts. One US dollar, which cost 16 Dominican pesos in the 1990s, now costs 45.
More than 7,000 Dominican migrants have been detained in Puerto Rico since Oct. 1., double the number for the previous 12 months.
At least 60 people have been confirmed dead this year in the Mona Passage, a shark-infested, 100-mile-wide channel where strong Atlantic and Caribbean currents meet. Nine migrants were confirmed dead in the passage in 2003, said Lieutenant Eric Willis, a US Coast Guard spokesman.
But the numbers are probably higher.
"Hundreds of people have probably lost their lives in the last several months," Willis said.
Coast Guard patrols searched Wednesday for at least 70 migrants reported missing. The Dominican Consulate in Puerto Rico announced yesterday that 79 migrants had landed in Cuba.
"We receive reports at least on a weekly basis of family members claiming that their loved ones have not made it to Puerto Rico," Willis said. "That is why we have a constant presence in the Mona Passage, knowing that people are making these dangerous trips in unseaworthy vessels."
The State Department has tried to stem the flow by sponsoring ads on Dominican billboards, beer coasters, and taxis. One poster shows coffins floating at sea and a warning in Spanish: "These illegal trips are trips to death."
Some smugglers have thrown troublesome migrants overboard, said Border Patrol spokesman Victor Colon, citing interviews with captured migrants.
Mota, who is single, lived with his unemployed mother and earned $350 a month from construction jobs and transporting passengers on a moped. He said he wanted to study systems engineering but could not afford to enroll at a university. He made the two-day trip to Puerto Rico's west coast without a life jacket or food, cramped into a small boat with 20 other migrants. Twice he vomited because of the choppy waves. His clothes, now dry, reek of mildew.
His quest for a new life ended July 29 when a Border Patrol agent caught him at a pay phone outside a convenience store in the southwestern town of Boqueron. Two other migrants who traveled with Mota were detained earlier in the day. The others escaped.
Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico, supported by more than $14 billion in annual US federal funds, is a logical first choice for poor Dominicans willing to do jobs like construction and housekeeping. Authorities estimate that 200,000 Dominicans live on the island of 4 million.
Despite stepped-up patrols, authorities estimate that 30 percent of migrant voyages reach Puerto Rico, Willis said. Smugglers paint the boats blue as camouflage and cover outboard motors with wet towels so they will not show up on infrared screens, Colon said.
Migrants sometimes hide in coastal thickets for several days, waiting until all is clear.
Mota was flown home in time for the Aug. 16 inauguration of Leonel Fernandez as the new Dominican president. Fernandez promises to replicate his previous term in office, in the 1990s, when the economy grew by 8 percent a year.
"I don't know how much he'll help," Mota said before leaving. "But I'm never crossing the Mona Passage again. It was horrible."