At least four women died when a boat capsized early Wednesday off the coast of South Florida, U.S. Coast Guard officials said, in the latest example of the recent tragedies worldwide of illegally transporting people from poorer to wealthier nations.
Eleven survivors were rescued after the boat carrying mainly Haitian and Jamaican nationals turned over, Coast Guard Petty Officer Sabrina Laberdesque told the Los Angeles Times. One of those aboard the recreational vessel was injured, she said.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the deceased," said Capt. Austin Gould, commander of Coast Guard Sector Miami. "This tragic case reiterates the dangers of traveling aboard an overcrowded boat at night with no safety equipment on board."
The Coast Guard will question the survivors, who remain in custody, to determine if they were trying to immigrate to the U.S. illegally or were victims of a human smuggling operation trafficking in people for sexual or other illegal purposes.
The Florida incident comes after some 330 people died this month in separate incidents off the coast of Italy when two boats capsized. The dead are believed to have been Africans heading for Europe, according to officials.
Human smuggling of all types appears to be a growth industry, according to international agencies, and human trafficking has become a backbone of some organized crime endeavors. In the United States, the waters off Florida are well known for overloaded or poorly maintained vessels that bring people from the Caribbean to the United States.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Coast Guard picked up 508 Haitians and 1,357 Cubans at sea. Since the start of the new fiscal year, the Coast Guard has reported picking up 93 Haitians and 117 Cubans, Laberdesque said.
Cubans who reach the United States are generally allowed to stay, while those stopped at sea are usually returned. Other national groups are given less favorable status and are usually repatriated.
In the most recent U.S. case, Coast Guard Sector Miami stated it received a report at about 1 a.m. Wednesday from a Miami-Dade County 911 dispatcher. The report said a vessel had capsized about seven miles east of Government Cut.
The Coast Guard sent a boat and an MH-65 helicopter. Nine people were found clinging to the hull of the boat, officials said. The boat lacked lifejackets.
The Coast Guard said it would investigate why the boat turned over.