MIAMI (AP) — The last time Lázaro Artiles spoke to his wife, he was in the ocean just off Cuba’s northern coast in a small boat.
He and his friends had intended to make it to Florida. But now the boat was sinking.
Artiles — whose relatives had no clue he had left for the United States — called for help that Sunday in August along with fellow passenger Yuliet Hernandez. There were six people aboard, years-long friends from the small town of Sagua La Grande who loved to fish and go to the beach together.
Artiles and another passenger were trying to bail out the seawater, they told relatives over a phone that had little battery life left. The engine had stopped working. They believed they were near Cayo Esquivel, a small Cuban cay, and were raising a flag to make themselves more visible to rescuers.
“Gordi, don’t worry, I am fine,” Artiles told his wife, Barbara, who lives in Sagua La Grande.
Cuban authorities later said they had received a call from a boat in distress and dispatched a helicopter and boats. Days later, a fisherman found a woman’s body floating in the ocean. It was Hernandez.
It was the last anyone ever heard from Artiles or any of his friends.
“I want to think that he’s alive, that one day he’s going to knock on my door,” said Tamara Morales, Artiles’ mother, who lives in Cuba. “I can’t accept that my son is dead. Even if it’s true. I have to keep waiting.”
As political and economic conditions in Cuba deteriorate, thousands of the island’s inhabitants have risked their lives on dangerous sea journeys to the U.S., where they hope to build their lives anew. They spend months building rickety ships in secret, often in woodlands and mangroves near the shores, scrounging up the necessary cash to buy engines, zinc and wood for the vessels they hope will take them away from Cuba.
The shores of the Florida Keys are littered with the wrecks of boats that carried those who managed to make it. But it’s impossible to say how many Cubans have vanished in the treacherous depths of the Caribbean and the Florida Straits since the first big wave of people left in 1980, when Fidel Castro opened the Port of Mariel to all those who wanted to leave.
The United Nations’ Missing Migrants Project estimates that 305 Cubans and 380 Haitians have disappeared or died in the Caribbean region since 2014, when the agency began to track them. The agency uses a combination of official sources, interviews with family members and news stories to put together its database.
Last year, there were at least 321 missing people who were fleeing their countries in the Caribbean area, according to the U.N. data. Of those, 97 were confirmed dead. It’s the highest number of those lost at sea in the Caribbean of any year since the project began, but the numbers are described by the Missing Migrants Project as “minimum estimates.”
“Sometimes, in the Caribbean, incidents called ghost shipwrecks occur,” said Edwin Viales, a data and research assistant for the U.N. project. “In these cases no one — including the authorities, family members or the media — knows what happened.” In those cases, the project reports the most conservative tolls of missing people.
Harder to measure is the devastation and grief among the family members and friends left behind to wonder whether their missing loved ones are alive or dead.
“When Lazarito got on that boat, he took all of us with him,” said Linney Palmero, Artiles’ cousin, who lives in Miami.
The Miami Herald spoke to more than 20 people in the U.S. and Cuba who said that their relatives left the island on three different boats between August 2022 and this month. Like Artiles’ mother and his wife, many of them did not know of their loved ones’ plans to leave the country on clandestine boat journeys. Many began to worry when they found out shortly after the boats departed.
Some of the relatives say if they had known, they would have pleaded with them not to leave. Some relatives had themselves embarked on the same journey and understood the risks — and the pull to flee to the United States.
“I told my sister not to come here,” said Luisa Yanes Perez, 44, who lives in South Florida and had eight family members, including a brother and a sister, leave Cuba on a boat in late December from the rural community of Palma Sola in the province of Villa Clara. “‘You’re already 50-something years old. The ocean is dangerous,’” she recalled telling her sister.
She hasn’t heard from them since. Neither have the relatives of the other 20 passengers on the same vessel.
Three months ago, Yanes herself made it to Marathon on a rickety vessel. Now, she grapples with the possible loss of most of her family, only months after two of her young nephews died in a freak explosion in Cuba. Daimiri Yanes Perez, her niece, left her 8-year-old son behind on the island with her eldest daughter.
The boy “calls me and says ‘Where is my mother? Why doesn’t she call me?’ and I can’t reply, because I don’t know what to say,” Yanes said.
Relatives of the missing often resort to a desperate chase of all the clues they come across, often to no avail.
As voyages have ramped up since the holidays, so have the messages on an informal online ecosystem built on Facebook groups, Instagram accounts and WhatsApp chats. Hundreds of people post messages and prayers, trying to figure out where their parents, children, siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces and friends could be.
In public and in private, they grapple with whether their loved ones drowned or whether they might still be alive in U.S. Coast Guard cutters waiting to be repatriated, in detention centers in the U.S. or the Bahamas, or abandoned somewhere on an uninhabited cay.
“We have hope. As long as they don’t turn up, we think that they will come back,” said Adys Menéndez, mother of 22-year-old Cristian Kadir Peraza Menéndez, a friend of Artiles who also left on the boat in August.
‘AN EMPTY SOUL’
Lazaro Artiles’ family loved spending holidays and birthdays together. Artiles and his wife, Barbara Mondeja, have been together since they were teenagers. They have a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, Mondeja said.
“He was always present in every moment of their lives. And a phenomenal, very affectionate husband,” said Mondeja, 27, over a string of WhatsApp messages. “I am destroyed. I have been left with an empty soul.”
Artiles, 29, ran a pizza business with his older brother, Daniel, from the family’s home. His mother doled out hot slices and cold sodas to customers. Sometimes, Artiles, who loved Mexican music, would sweep his mother off her feet.
“He would play beautiful music and dance with me. He never made me feel old,” Morales, 52, said.
Many of the family’s memories were made in their quaint wooden beach house in Playa Uvero, a beach not far from Sagua La Grande. And it wasn’t unusual for Artiles and his friends to spend days swimming in its waters.
Artiles went fishing with friends like Peraza, who was studying to become an electrician; José Harold Marrero, a 23-year-old warehouse worker; and Carlos Linares, a 29-year-old security guard at a facility that made dairy products.
That’s why, when they told their families they were heading for Playa Uvero to spend a few days by the water, no one suspected they had other plans. In the early hours of Aug. 27, Peraza told his wife that he was going fishing so they could make arroz con pescado, rice with fish, his mother said. Later that day, he texted her that the fish weren’t biting and he and his friends would return the next day.
Instead, the following afternoon, they called for help from somewhere in the waters near Cuba.
Since then, the families have been trying to piece together what happened, and how their loved ones could have planned the voyage without anyone finding out. Tatiana Morales, the mother of Carlos Linares, said her 10-year-old grandchild had witnessed his uncle dig up a wood and zinc boat from the shores of Playa Uvero during a family trip in July, weeks before they took off.
“We didn’t have any money for him to leave legally. If I had known he was leaving, I would have never let him do this crazy thing,” Tatiana Morales said.
The families of the missing are clinging to hope based on several accounts from recently repatriated Cubans who responded to the families’ posts saying that they had seen the men on U.S. Coast Guard vessels and that some were applying for asylum.
One man said he was sure he saw Carlos after seeing a man with a name tattooed on his left chest just like the one Linares had. Another said a man who looked like Harold had told him that he had been rescued after 16 hours adrift in the water. Another man repatriated around New Year’s said he had seen Lazaro on a Coast Guard cutter near Marathon, looking skinnier and disheveled, as well as Cristian and Harold.
“It’s the only hope we have left,” said José Marrero, the father of José Harold Marrero, the warehouse worker.
But the Coast Guard told the Herald that people interdicted by the agency are “rarely on our vessels more than a few days.”
“As a practice, we try to return these individuals as expeditiously as possible,” said an agency spokesperson, noting there are occasional exceptions.
‘I DO THIS FOR YOU’
Before Yoel Garcia Prado left Cuba on a makeshift boat in late December from the rural town of Palma Sola, he said goodbye to his only son, 13-year-old Emmanuel. The furniture woodworker, who had a difficult time in his youth when he was in the island’s compulsory military service, hoped his son would join him in the U.S. in a few years.
Yailen Malagón Valdes, Emmanuel’s mother, who is in Cuba, described Garcia as a loving father who was always involved in his child’s life.
“He told him, ‘Mi vida, I do this for you,’ ” she said, “My child can’t stop thinking about it, that he got on a boat to help him.”
But no family member has heard from Garcia. Neither have the relatives of the other 27 passengers who were also on that boat. In the wake of the disappearance, they are cobbling together what they know about the voyage and who was on it to try to track down their loved ones.
Malagón’s husband lives in New Jersey and is good friends with Garcia. Her husband calls detention immigration facilities in the U.S. frequently to see if he might be at one of them.
Relatives believe the boat took off in Palma Sola, near the border of the provinces of Villa Clara and Matanzas — both departure hot spots for voyages leaving the island — the night of Dec. 23. But the boat had mechanical problems and they spent two days on a Cuban cay repairing it before telling relatives that they were once more on their way to the United States.
On the vessel were Ledia Rodriguez Estrada and Maikol Herriman Estrada, who left behind six children in Cuba. Marioluis and Luismario Hernández Berrio, identical twins, were also passengers. Also aboard was Yandry González López, a welder and father of three.
“He had always wanted to leave to help his family,” said Odalys Aguilar Virola of her longtime partner, Yoan Valenzuela Rivera, who was on the boat. “This never crosses your mind until you go through it.”
Valenzuela had worked for several years as a driver, shuttling dialysis patients back and forth in the municipality of Esperanza in Villa Clara. Keeping the car running was expensive and parts needed for repairs were hard to find, his family said.
Before leaving, Valenzuela bought a crib and a baby mattress for his 22-year-old daughter’s firstborn. He wanted to make sure to leave things as ready as possible in his absence, said his cousin, Yanelys Llopiz, who lives in Cuba, although most of his relatives did not know he would be attempting the risky voyage to Florida. She said patients call the family to see if they know anything about his whereabouts.
It has been a month since anyone has heard anything about the passengers. Grieving and anxious family members have compiled a passenger list and found each other through Facebook groups. They formed a WhatsApp group, where they share photos of Coast Guard interdictions and boats that have landed in the Florida Keys. Relatives compared these to a video of the unfinished vessel in Cuba, its hull stripped down to wooden beams and zinc plates, nestled in a wooden landscape.
“Are we going for a boat ride?” asks the narrator of the video, which the Cubans filmed while they built the vessel, family members say.
Family members in the U.S have reached out to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office. A spokeswoman for Rubio, who recently met in Monroe County with state and federal officials about the recent landings, said his office “has seen an increase in Florida residents requesting information from the U.S. Coast Guard regarding relatives missing at sea.” The families have also called detention centers and searched for their names and birth dates on immigration detention databases.
No leads have panned out yet.
They have heard rumors their relatives might be in a Louisiana or Texas detention facility, but they would have likely received a call from them if they were in immigration custody once they were processed by authorities. Some relatives cling to the unlikely hope that their loved ones haven’t been booked into the facilities yet.
One Miami man, Dayan García, whose 26-year-old cousin, Maykel González Ruiz, was on the December boat, is drafting a letter to the government of the Bahamas. Some relatives of the missing hope that they might be in detention in Nassau, where Cubans found in Bahamian cays or waters are sometimes taken.
In a two-minute-long video posted on Facebook, Malagón Valdés and her son pleaded for help to find the teenage boy’s father.
“Someone, please find my dad, please,” said Emmanuel, a solemn look on his face as he stares into the camera.
‘HE WAS GOING TO LEAVE’
The picturesque city of Trinidad in southern Cuba, once a hub of the island’s sugar trade, sits far from the common departure points that people use to launch their boats.
But trinitarios still find their way to leave their home country through the Florida Straits. One boat with about two dozen passengers, several trinitarios among them, is missing after having left from the municipality of Marti in the province of Matanzas in early January.
One of the missing, a father of two, loved showing his city to travelers during tours on a horse-drawn carriage around the city’s historical center. Another, Renier Socarras Rubia, a 33-year-old taxi driver and father of two young kids, had recently bought a house. Another, 27-year-old Jasniel Varela Cabriales, worked in a cooperative.
Like all the others, the missing Cubans’ families are desperate for any news about their loved ones.
“Many false hopes. Many people give us fake news. We get happy, then we get anguished again. We don’t know anything,” said Aranay Ponce Pupo, who lives in Cuba and whose spouse of six years, Gilbert Pena, was also on the boat. She described him as humble and discreet.
Pena, who made cement water tanks in the Matanzas municipality of Los Arabos, had tried to leave by boat before. But Cuban authorities always turned him back. On the day he departed their home, her husband kissed their 3-year-old son goodbye. He was excited and joyful. Only the sea stood between him and a new life in the United States.
“Even if we had told him no, he was going to leave,” she said. “In the end, he was looking for a better life for us.”