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Salvadoran President on Death of Drowned Father and Daughter: ‘It Is Our Fault’

President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele speaks during a joint news conference in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 27, 2019. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

The newly elected president of El Salvador has taken responsibility for the deaths of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to reach the U.S., telling the BBC that the tragedy could have been avoided if conditions in the Central American country were not so dire.

A photo of Oscar and Valeria Martinez lying face down in the Rio Grande went viral last week, stirring outrage among activists and political figures who were quick to cite the Trump administration’s immigration policies to explain the tragedy. But President Nayib Bukele, who was elected last month, believes that blame for the deaths rests with Salvadoran officials, who have failed to curb the violent crime and economic deprivation that is fueling record immigration to the U.S.

“People don’t flee their homes because they want to, people flee their homes because they feel they have to,” Bukele told the BBC in an interview published Monday. “Why? Because they don’t have a job, because they are being threatened by gangs, because they don’t have basic things like water, education, health.”

“We can blame any other country but what about our blame? What country did they flee? Did they flee the United States? They fled El Salvador, they fled our country. It is our fault,” he added.

Nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants have been apprehended at the border this year, overwhelming Border Patrol and Department of Health and Human Services resources. The influx has led to rapidly deteriorating conditions within holding facilities, many of which are now holding four to five times as many migrants as they were designed to.

Bukele decried the conditions in U.S. holding facilities and the policies that helped to create them during the interview, but said that blame for the situation ultimately rests with those countries that cannot offer more opportunity to their citizens.

“I think migration is a right, but it should be an option, not an obligation,” he said. “And right now it’s an obligation for a lot of people.”

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