San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rescued Migrants Describe Saga at Sea

It was last October when the U.S. Coast Guard found Rubén Anca stranded in a wooden boat crammed with 127 other Chinese and Peruvian would-be illegal U.S. immigrants off the coast of Costa Rica.

“After that, I said I’ll never do that again,” said Anca, a Peruvian citizen. A grin broke across his face.

“Then I got on the next boat that went out,” he said with a painful laugh.

Anca was found last weekend along with 56 other Peruvian and Ecuadorian migrants, stranded on a boat that was abandoned by at least three of the human smugglers who charged passengers as much as $11,000 a head to make it to the United States.

The boat, which left the port town of Manta, Ecuador Jan. 7, was headed for southern Mexico, the migrants were told, where smugglers would then lead them north through the Mexican interior into the United States.

“I wanted to meet my mom. I don’t remember what she’s like,” said 10-year-old Cristian Albarracín, an Ecuadorian boy who was on vacation in Manta, Ecuador when smugglers – known as coyotes – approached him and his father. They decided it was time to take a trip north and left that same day.

One of at least five minors found on the boat, Cristian said he hoped to meet his mother, who resides in New York, for the first time since he was 2.

His dream was shattered when the boat’s motor failed about eight days into the trip. Soon after, the group ran out of water.

“I thought something bad was going to happen. (My father) kept paying and paying and paying,” he said, referring to how the smugglers repeatedly extorted his father to take care of Cristian, who stayed up on deck while his father was crammed below deck with most of the other immigrants for more than a week.

Once they realized they were stranded at sea, people got desperate, said Ecuadorian emigrant Erwin Esparza, 33, a journalist who left his native country after separating from his wife. Many passengers vomited over the edge of the boat as the small craft was whipped around by the waves. Smugglers began threatening some of the migrants with violence.

That’s about when two helicopters showed up, prompting at least three of the smugglers to make their escape in a smaller getaway boat. They stole some of the passengers’ cash and belongings before leaving, passengers said.

“It was the most exciting experience I’ve ever had,” said Esparza, adding that he took the trip because “I like adrenaline.”

Soon thereafter, a U.S. Coast Guard ship rescued the boatload of Peruvians and Ecuadorians. Red Cross officials treated some of the passengers for dehydration, according to Immigration Director Mario Zamora. The passengers were brought back to Costa Rica, where they stayed in Immigration’s dingy center for detained immigrants in south San José.

Costa Rican authorities worked with Peruvian and Ecuadorian authorities here to coordinate flights to repatriate the migrants. A plane flew the 44 Ecuadorians found on the ship back to their home country Wednesday, according to the Public Security Ministry’s press office.

Three Peruvian men found on the boat are being held in custody under suspicion of human trafficking, according to a Judicial Branch statement.

Anca, who took out a mortgage on his humble home in Lima, Peru, will go back to his land and try to pay off his mortgage. For now, the 31-year-old just wants to go home and see his daughter, whom he had planned to bring to the United States legally once he saved up the money.

“I just want to go there to work,” he told The Tico Times Tuesday.

Perhaps he’ll try again to get to the United States, but not by boat, he said.


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