The crisis on the US-Mexican border, in three snapshots

Mexico City (AFP) –


A father and daughter drowned in a tragic embrace. A mother begging hysterically for her son's release. Soldiers forcefully detaining a woman and her daughter at the border.

These three photographs left their mark this week on the migration debate on both sides of the US-Mexican border, where spiralling numbers of asylum seekers are chasing the increasingly impossible dream of reaching the United States.

Threatened with tariffs by US President Donald Trump, Mexico agreed this month to crack down on undocumented migration, deploying tens of thousands of National Guardsmen to tighten its borders against a surge of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence to request asylum in the United States.

Amid a mounting crisis, these three pictures emerged as symbols of the human stories behind the politically charged debate.

- So close -

The photo of the drowned Salvadoran migrants drew instant comparisons to that of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015.

It shows Valeria Martinez Avalos, three weeks shy of her second birthday, face-down in the water of the Rio Grande alongside her father, Oscar.

His dark t-shirt is wrapped around her -- his vain attempt to protect her as they crossed the river toward the United States -- and her right arm is wrapped around his neck.

"It's the hardest thing I've had to cover in years," said photojournalist Abraham Pineda, one of those who shot the tragic scene in the border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.

"Seeing them there at the edge of the river, the way she had her arm around his neck, like an embrace.... It left me speechless."

Trump's opponents immediately blamed him for the tragedy. Across the border, leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- who came to office vowing to protect migrants' rights -- faced similar accusations for his recent hardline turn.

Trump fired back that he "hated" the photo, blaming Democrats in Congress for failing to pass migration reform. Lopez Obrador meanwhile said his "conscience is clear."

As both governments make it harder for people to cross the border to request asylum -- a right protected under international law -- "people get more desperate," said the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

"They go through the desert, they try to wade across the Rio Grande, and this kind of punitive approach almost predictably leads to these kinds of deaths," he told AFP.

- Border troops -

Two days earlier, Mexico's migrant crackdown was vividly captured by AFP photojournalist Herika Martinez Prado, who shot the moment a National Guardsman dragged a Nicaraguan woman and her daughter back from the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.

In the picture, another guardsman, carrying an assault rifle, moves to intercept a second woman trailing close behind them.

That militarized approach to controlling the northern border caused a backlash in Mexico, where Lopez Obrador's newly created National Guard had been meant to fight violent drug cartels, not unarmed migrant families.

Such practices are "re-victimizing" people who are running for their lives, said Dolores Paris, a migration policy expert at the College of the Northern Border in Mexico.

"They are fleeing persecution or widespread violence, and arrive in Mexico only to have their children ripped away, to be locked up and deported back to the place they are running from," she said.

"We have a humanitarian emergency, and instead of addressing it we are spending enormous amounts of money on militarizing the country."

- 'I'm begging you' -

Mexico has focused much of its effort on slowing the flow of migrants across its southern border.

There, migrants being held in detention centers have rioted numerous times in recent weeks.

In the latest incident, hundreds of migrants protested Tuesday at a detention center called the Mesoamerican Fair, in the southern border city of Tapachula, demanding to be let out.

One woman fell to the ground and begged hysterically through the gap underneath fence to be released to get medical attention for her son.

"Help my son, he's sick, many days. I'm begging you, there's no water to drink, no food. Help, help," she screamed in broken Spanish, tears and saliva dripping from her face.

Authorities have not allowed journalists access to the detention centers, but reports abound of squalid conditions, overcrowding and abuse.

Paris said one detention center in the nearby city of Tuxtla Gutierrez is at four times its official capacity.