WARNING: Graphic image

A confronting and heartbreaking image of a young girl clinging to her father on the banks of the river that divides the US and Mexico is being shared around the world.

The story behind it is tragically common.

The journalist who took that photograph was Julia Le Duc. It was published in the Mexican newspaper La Jordana where the deceased were named as Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, 25, and his daughter, Valeria.

Advertisement
Wife and mother Tania Vanessa Avalos talks to Mexican authorities after the drowning. Photo / AP
Wife and mother Tania Vanessa Avalos talks to Mexican authorities after the drowning. Photo / AP

Valeria was just one year and 11 months when on Sunday afternoon she and her father were washed away by fast-flowing currents down a section of the 3000km Rio Grande.

The toddler was found with her head tucked inside her father's T-shirt and an arm around his neck.

La Jordana reports the family had travelled from El Salvador through Guatemala. They were fleeing violence that has gripped the region when they entered Mexico, secured a humanitarian visa and tried to apply for asylum in the United States.

On Sunday, two months after entering Mexico, they arrived at a migrant centre to make the formal request for political asylum. But La Jordana reports the office was closed for the weekend.

Martinez decided to try his luck crossing the river at Matamoros, not far from the Mexican east coast.

His wife, named as Tania Vanessa Avalos, stood at the edge of the river and watched as her husband made the short swim across.

Martinez made it to the US side safely where he sat Valeria down on the riverbank. As he started back for his wife, the couple's daughter panicked and threw herself into the water.

The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his young daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico. Photo / AP
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his young daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico. Photo / AP

The pair were dragged away before an exhaustive 12-hour search ended in the discovery of two bodies.

Advertisement

The Salvadoran embassy has offered to pay for the repatriation of the bodies, La Jordana reports.

The reporter who captured the image that has since been seen around the world told The Associated Press police arrived at the scene "amid tears" and "screams".

Martinez's mother back in El Salvador, Rosa Ramirez, spoke with her daughter-in-law by phone afterwards.

"When the girl jumped in is when he tried to reach her, but when he tried to grab the girl, he went in further … and he couldn't get out," Ramirez told AP.

"He put her in his shirt, and I imagine he told himself, 'I've come this far' and decided to go with her."

'They died in each other's arms'

The mother of a man who drowned alongside his 23-month-old daughter while trying to cross the Rio Grande into Texas says she finds a heartbreaking photograph of their bodies hard to look at but takes some comfort in knowing "they died in each other's arms."

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria were swept away by the current near Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, this week.

"It's tough, it's kind of shocking, that image," the 25-year-old man's mother, Rosa Ramírez, told The Associated Press. "But at the same time, it fills me with tenderness. I feel so many things, because at no time did he let go of her."

"You can see how he protected her," she said. "They died in each other's arms."

Ramírez had shared a sea-green brick home with barred windows in San Martin on the outskirts of the capital, San Salvador, with her son, his 21-year-old wife Tania Vanessa Ávalos and their daughter until the young family decided to make the journey north.

In their working-class neighborhood of about 40,000, Martínez worked in a pizzeria and Ávalos as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant, Ramírez said.

Rosa Ramirez sobs as she shows journalists toys that belonged to her nearly 2-year-old granddaughter Valeria in her home in San Martin, El Salvador. Photo / AP
Rosa Ramirez sobs as she shows journalists toys that belonged to her nearly 2-year-old granddaughter Valeria in her home in San Martin, El Salvador. Photo / AP

The area has had problems with gang violence but these days it's calm, she said, adding that he never had any problems with gangs — they left for economic reasons.

Ramírez said that she had given them the big room in the two-bedroom house, but they dreamed of saving money for a place of their own and that drove the family to head for the United States in early April.

"I told him, 'Son, don't go. But if you do go, leave me the girl,'" Ramírez said.

″'No, mamá,'" she said he replied. "'How can you think that I would leave her?'"

Now she feels a hole that "nobody can fill, but God gives me strength," she said.

Marta Argueta de Andrade, their 50-year-old neighbour, said she met the family about five years ago. She described them as "good people," and Martínez as an easygoing young man.

"I would see him walking with the girl. I called her 'little curly one,'" Argueta said. "She was very pretty."

Officials have said the bodies were expected to be returned to El Salvador on Thursday. Ramírez said she wasn't sure when they would arrive, but that the government was covering the cost.

"I would say to those who are thinking of migrating, they should think it over because not everyone can live that American dream you hear about," Ramírez said.

"We can put up a fight here," she added. "How much I would like to have my son and my granddaughter here. One way or another, we get by in our country."

Wake-up call

The deaths are a wake-up call to an issue that has been bubbling away for some time. In recent weeks, three babies and a woman were found dead trying to make the crossing from Central America to safety in the US.

AP reports 283 migrant deaths were recorded last year, but the death toll for 2019 has not been made public.

The Rio Grande has taken its share of casualties. In April, a family of four — including three children — drowned when their raft capsized on the river.

The humanitarian disaster unfolding at entry points into Texas is as bad as it's ever been. The New York Times last week reported on "a chaotic scene of sickness and filth" at overcrowded border crossings where those waiting and hoping for a new start have gone months without showering.

"Children as young as seven and eight, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they've just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants," the Times reported.

"Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk. Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility, those who visited said. They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap."

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador responded to questions about the image of the father and his young daughter on the banks of the Rio Grande.

"Very regrettable that this would happen," he said.

- additional reporting by AP