Search teams hunted in the Caribbean on Thursday for 21 Venezuelans missing after a boat sank in rough seas en route to the island of Trinidad, authorities said. At least four other people, and possibly eight, were reported rescued.
There was confusion about how many people had been on the small craft. An official with the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard said it carried 25, while a Venezuelan legislator said more than 30 were on board.
Venezuelan government officials did not immediately make public comments about the accident.
The small craft left Venezuela on Tuesday and overturned in the sea at some point not far from shore, Lt. Kerron Valere of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard said in a statement.
Valere said Venezuela was leading the search within that nation’s waters but the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard was assisting. He said four people had been saved.
While initial reports said 35 people were on the boat, Valere put the number at 25.
But Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Robert Alcalá said more than 30 people were on the vessel — 25 who boarded in the Venezuelan port of Güiria and several others who illegally got on at another stop along the coast. He said fishermen had rescued eight people after the sinking.
Dozens of relatives of the missing were in Güiria anxiously waiting for word back from the search vessels, he said.
Alcalá told The Associated Press that Venezuela’s economic crunch of hyperinflation and food shortages drove the passengers — mostly women — onto the boat.
“They go to Trinidad because of the economic situation in this country,” he said.
In recent years, an estimated 3.7 million Venezuelans have fled the crisis-wracked country, where a political struggle is now playing out between U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó and socialist President Nicolás Maduro.
Most of Venezuela’s migrants travel by land into neighboring Colombia and Brazil, but others overload fishing boats to cross the sometimes deadly Caribbean waters to nearby islands.
In January 2018, more than two dozen migrants were never found after a boat from Venezuela smashed onto rocks on the nearby Dutch island of Curacao. Officials said two people survived.
The missing boat overturned in strong waves near the island of Patos, roughly 5 miles (8 kilometers) off the Venezuelan coast.
Seven security force vessels were searching for the missing, an official from the civil protection agency said. The official spoke to AP only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The online news website Daily Express quoted a Venezuelan living in Trinidad who said her sister could not be located. The 21-year-old was headed to the island to flee Venezuela because she said it lacked food and hospital care.
Associated Press writer Soyini Grey in Port of Spain, Trinidad, contributed to this report.