At a busy intersection, a girl with a high half ponytail looks at you as she begs for coins. There is dirt beneath her fingernails and her pink shirt looks unwashed. The image in the photo could fit thousands of impoverished Mexican children who sell gum or beg for money in the streets, but for one thing: The girl in this picture is blonde.

The flurry of internet attention to the photo, and the quick way officials reacted, has renewed a debate about racism in Mexico, a nation that is proud of its mestizo heritage but where millions of indigenous people live in poverty and passers-by often barely notice the dark-skinned children begging in the street.

It started last week when a Facebook user posted a photo of the girl standing next to a rearview mirror on a Guadalajara street. He apparently suspected she might have been stolen because "her parents are brown," and said he had already contacted a welfare agency and state prosecutors.

"Let's spread this photo around," he wrote.

Tens of thousands shared the photo of the golden-haired, green-eyed girl and dozens commented on it, some thanking him, others complaining the post was racist.

Lino Gonzalez, the spokesman for prosecutors in Jalisco state, where Guadalajara is the capital, said the widespread distribution of the photo was seen as a sort of collective warning, and an investigation was launched.

"The concern was the suspicion the girl had been stolen," Gonzalez said. "We had to respond because there was suspicion a crime had been committed."

Officials quickly tracked down the 5-year-old child, put her in a Guadalajara orphanage and detained her 23-year-old mother for two days.

Authorities said she lied about her address and about the father of the girl, first stating he was a foreigner, then saying he was was Mexican, but estranged from her.

The child's grandmother — who also has green eyes — was able to hand over the birth certificate of the girl. Gonzalez said the mother was released and there were no signs the girl had been kidnapped, though DNA results are pending. Authorities say they are also considering charges of child exploitation.

The case outraged many.

"We need to see a white girl to worry about kidnapping, trafficking of children and child exploitation. I've never seen photos of Indian children or simply dark-skinned kids circulating on the Internet with people asking others to help them," wrote human rights activist Yali Noriega in her blog.

Some think the mother could sue the government. Xochitl Galvez, a former federal Cabinet minister who is an advocate for Indian rights, said authorities tend to rely too much on public opinion when chasing delicate cases.

"It is not right that just because of the color of her skin, they can say it's not her daughter," she said. "There is no such thing as a pure race. We are a mix ... that tells you a lot about the authorities' lack of knowledge."

Galvez said authorities should instead work to reduce the high rate of child labor in Mexico and create more programs to support poor single mothers.

"The solution is not to arrest the mother or take the girl from her," she said. "We should be asking what do we do to help these children?"

Amparo Gonzalez Luna, director of the orphanage where the girl has been living, said the mother is poor and the episode should encourage her to take better care of her children.

"It has caused her a lot of pain," she told the Televisa network.


Adriana Gomez Licon is on Twitter http://twitter.com/agomezlicon