MATAMOROS, Mexico – The photographer whose shot of a Salvadoran man and his 2-year-old daughter lying dead in the Rio Grande has touched people around the world told EFE on Wednesday that the image reflects the desperation of Central American migrants who cross Mexico with hopes of reaching the United States.
Agencia EFE’s Abraham Pineda Jacome snapped the photo of Oscar Martinez, 25, and young Valeria on the Mexican side of the river that constitutes the border between the Aztec nation and its northern neighbor.
The image recalls the 2015 photo of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy who drowned in Turkish waters.
Late Sunday, authorities in Matamoros – just across the border from Brownsville, Texas – organized a rescue operation after getting reports from residents that migrants were drowning in the Rio Grande.
“But they had to suspend the operation because night fell. There’s no light in that place and visibility is null, so there was nothing that could be done,” Pineda said. “The next day at 9:00 in the morning they resumed. I was already at the place waiting for them to renew the activity.”
He saw two officers set out in a launch to search the river. About two hours later, team members on the riverbank told Pineda that the search party had found two bodies.
“I ran to the site to corroborate what they were telling me and where I arrived, I see the bodies face-down on the (river) edge. I see this image and the only thing I did – from inertia, as a journalist – is take photographs. Then I left because the authorities came and they were going to cordon-off the area,” he recounted.
For Pineda, the deaths of Oscar and Valeria are “a result of the toughening of immigration policies by both the United States and Mexico.”
US President Donald Trump, who made stopping unauthorized immigration a centerpiece of his 2016 election campaign, has taken a draconian approach toward migrants and used the threat of tariffs to force Mexico to do more to stop the northbound flow of people.
In the past, Pineda said, US authorities allowed asylum-seekers to enter the country from Matamoros, but now, migrants find themselves forced to stay in Mexico while their applications are processed.
“We’re talking about Cubans, Central Americans, South Americans, that some have chosen to jump into the river and swim across,” the photojournalist said.
“Many of them have a theory that if they reach the other side, the United States has to consider their request for asylum. I don’t know how true that is, but they are getting desperate,” Pineda said of those deciding to take their chances in the Rio Grande.
Oscar Martinez’s brother told Pineda that he had warned his sibling about the danger of crossing the river.
“Every month a migrant dies of drowning,” Pineda said. (Oscar) didn’t heed the warning and he jumped in desperately instead of waiting two or three months here in Matamoros for them to decide on his request. He wanted to things up, but it was counterproductive.”
Asked about the potential impact of his photo on immigration policy, he said the image “could have a positive effect on part of United States society, but Trump directly, I don’t believe it moves anything.”
And on the Mexican side, Pineda noted that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had no reaction to the photo beyond expressing regret over the deaths.
“In fact, only yesterday the National Guard came to Matamoros to accompany elements of the National Migration Institute (Inami) to review the documents of those who are seeking asylum. We thought the Guard was to protect the population, but it turns out it’s to protect the border,” the photojournalist said.
More than 20,000 National Guard and army troops have been deployed to Mexico’s borders to assist Inami, Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said Monday.