MANTA, Ecuador - An Ecuadorean teenager who survived days in the sea clinging to a barrel of fuel said dozens of people who hoped to emigrate to the United States were locked in the hold of a boat when it sank.
More than 100 Ecuadoreans drowned when the wooden fishing boat with a capacity for 13 people sank in the Pacific Ocean last week. Nine people survived by hanging on to fuel and water tanks until a passing boat picked them up on Sunday. Four others who initially escaped the sinking vessel gave in to exhaustion and drowned.
The trip was organised by smugglers charging US$10,000 ($14,450) to bring people to the United States. No arrests have been made.
Maria Cuzco, 15, described the moment when the boat sank in a heavy sea.
"When we were hit by the giant waves, the people who were in the hold screamed and wept, but they couldn't get out because it was locked," Cuzco told Reuters in a police station in the port of Manta where she was helping investigators.
Under pressure from the United States, Ecuador recently introduced penalties of more than nine years in jail for people traffickers. But, while police regularly arrest suspects, they usually let them go for lack of evidence.
Cuzco held on to a leaky fuel barrel. Her face, arms and back were severely burned by the fuel and the sun.
Julio Sisa, 23, clung to a big rubber tank of fresh water but was haunted by the memory of four other people who got out of the sinking boat but were too weak to keep hanging on.
"They couldn't stand the sun and the lack of food. The day after the boat sank, they decided to let go of the water tank and drowned," he said.
The survivors said they had never met the people traffickers but had spoken to them by telephone. The overloaded boat left the port of Esmeraldas on Thursday without authorisation on route for Guatemala.
"We had to pay $5000 when we got to Guatemala, and from there they were going to take us by land to the United States," said Sisa.
On arrival in the United States they had agreed to pay another $5000.
The boat sank in Colombian territorial waters. The Colombian Navy said it was only informed of the incident late on Tuesday, when it launched a search-and-rescue operation which will continue through Friday.
But the chances of finding bodies were minimal in an area where the sea is 2000m deep, Colombian Admiral Jairo Pena told Reuters.
Three of the survivors were in the burn unit of a Manta hospital and six were assisting police. Police were trying to determine if any of the survivors were crew members or traffickers.
The incident illustrated the ruthlessness of people traffickers as well as the risks people were willing to run to escape Ecuador, where 60 per cent live in poverty and three presidents have been toppled amid popular unrest since 1997.
US and Ecuadorean authorities have rescued 400 would-be migrants from Ecuador in rickety boats in the Pacific so far this year.
At least 500,000 Ecuadoreans -- about one in 25 of the population -- have left their country since 1997, mainly heading for Spain and the United States.