September 5, 2014 / 11:30 PM / 3 years ago

Two Cuban migrants dead, eight missing at sea, survivors say

MIAMI (Reuters) - Two Cuban migrants died and as many as eight more are missing after a three-week odyssey at sea, according to relatives of 15 badly sunburned and dehydrated survivors of a boat rescued by the Mexican Navy this week.

The Cubans, who face possible deportation back to Cuba, are receiving treatment at an immigration facility in the city of Merida, in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The rustic, homemade boat carrying 25 people left Manzanillo in eastern Cuba on Aug. 7, Jose Caballero, the husband of one of the survivors, told Reuters on Friday in a telephone interview from Austin, Texas.

Caballero, who left Cuba by a similar route last December, said his wife, Mailin Perez, told him by phone from Mexico that the boat's motor broke down after two days and the passengers rigged a makeshift sail.

Believing they were close to the northwest coast of Cuba seven or eight passengers decided to swim for shore holding onto rubber inner tubes. "No one has heard anything of them since," said Caballero.

The boat drifted for more than two weeks, without food and only rain water to drink, before it was spotted by fishermen and intercepted by a navy vessel about 150 miles (240 km) northeast of Puerto Progreso in Yucatan, the Mexican Navy said on Monday.

One 16-year-old boy died shortly after he was rescued of an apparent heart attack, officials said.

Caballero said his wife told him another passenger, a six-months pregnant woman, died during the journey and her body was thrown overboard.

"They tried to save her. They gave her urine with condensed milk," he said, adding that his wife was an assistant at a blood bank and had medical supplies with her.

"Her husband, pricked his skin and fed her with his own blood in a syringe," he added.

A Mexican government official said it was likely the 15 would be deported.

Mexico's National Immigration Institute issued a statement on Friday saying that it was in "permanent contact with Cuban authorities to offer (the migrants) assisted return to their country since they lack a legal permit to stay in Mexico."

Two Cuban American members of Congress in the Miami area wrote to Mexico's government on Thursday urging it not to send the 15 survivors back to Cuba.

"Cubans forcibly repatriated to the island often face harsh punitive measures," said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart. "It is imperative that Cubans who are found fleeing from their island prison are not made to return to the oppression that they risk their lives to escape."

The latest boatload of Cuban migrants came only days after six men who identified themselves as Cubans landed on a Texas coastal island after their boat engine broke down and they drifted for two weeks across the Gulf of Mexico, using a sail made out of a plastic sheet.

Relatives of another boat carrying 11 Cubans, last seen leaving the Cayman Islands on Aug. 28, were also anxiously awaiting word of their fate on Friday.

"I put my faith in God and that I hear news soon," Marlenis Alvarez, 42, whose son and her brother are on the boat, said in a phone interview from her home in Texas.

Under the U.S. "wet foot, dry foot policy," Cuban migrants who make it onto U.S. soil are allowed to remain while those intercepted at sea are turned back.

Cubans seeking to flee the communist-run island are heading in increasing numbers to Central America or southern Mexico and then making a long journey overland to reach the United States.

The U.S. Border Patrol said in late July that more than 13,500 Cubans had tried to cross the southwestern U.S. border since last Oct. 1, more than during all of the previous 12 months. Four years ago, the 12-month total was about 5,500.

Additional reporting by Peter Polack in the Cayman Islands and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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