“La Bestia from the south, they call it — the damned death train."
The song is called “La Bestia,” named after the freight train known as “The Beast” that migrants use to cross Mexico on their way to the United States. It offers a gruesome warning to prospective travelers thinking of risking their lives by riding atop the so-called “death train” — a trip that Amnesty International has called “the world’s most dangerous journey.”
“Hanging from the railcars / of the serpent made of steel,” go the song's lyrics in Spanish, over a marimba-driven corrido rhythm. “Migrants go as cattle / on the way to slaughter.”
Turns out, the song is a product of the US government, which has delivered this track to radio stations across Central America.
The US Customs and Border Protection agency commissioned the three-and-a-half minute tune as another measure meant to help curb the influx of Central American migrants currently overwhelming authorities on the border. The agency hopes to dissuade illegal immigration by communicating the horrors of hitching a ride on La Bestia.
Media outlets have reported the song is “currently playing” on 21 stations across Central America. However, people who answered in-cabin phone-lines at three regional-music stations contacted by VICE News in El Salvador and Honduras said they hadn’t heard of the song.
It remains unclear if it is actually getting heavy radio play in the countries from which many migrants are fleeing due to violence and threats from powerful street gangs.
What is certain is that “La Bestia” is part of the CBP’s million-dollar “Dangers Awareness Campaign,” which intends to help “save and protect the lives of migrant children attempting to cross the southwest border.” The campaign has the target of placing 6,500 public service announcements on radio and television.
Border Patrol officials on Friday did not return requests for comment on the program. For anyone desperate to hear some of "La Bestia" now, though, a reduced version of it is hosted on CBP’s website. The clip is followed a short add-on by a female announcer, saying, “Our children are the future. Let’s protect them.”
The men behind the music, composer Carlo Nicolau and singer Eddie Ganz, spoke to me about how this song was developed. While it still remains unclear if their track “La Bestia” is having any impact on unaccompanied children migrants’ decision to head for the US, the song’s creators showed no hesitation in expressing their disapproval of the US government’s current immigration policy.
“My parents came here from Cuba, and they had it tough. Needless to say... these people want to work and get a new life,” Ganz said. “They should get an opportunity.”
Nicolau, of Mexican descent, agreed. He said that the process for legal immigration has become much more difficult since his parents first came to the United States.
“The US government should have a very different immigration policy. Exactly which one, I don’t know,” Nicolau told me. “I think that both governments are responsible — the Mexican government and the US government. They haven’t found a way to really address this issue the right way.”
Nicolau said he’s composed seven other songs for CBP, several of which made it onto a government compilation CD featuring a handful of original “migra-corridos” — roughly, border songs, a rehashing of “migra,” the derogatory term used regionally for the US Border Patrol. This CD was sent to radio stations throughout Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in previous years.
“The way they went about it was very clever, you know," Ganz said, describing his experience with CBP. "Meaning they didn’t put a dumb-ass public announcement saying ‘blah blah blah blah from the government,’ which is great. It’s very clever.”
The third man involved in the project, lyricist Rodolfo Hernandez, was unreachable this week. Hernandez happens to be the chief creative director of Elevation, a New York- and Washington-based advertising agency that specializes in the Hispanic market and is often commissioned by CBP.
Elevation’s website hosts a sample of 60-second spots created for the US media campaign in Central America. The men behind “La Bestia” told me they’d be willing to work with the CBP again if the opportunity arises.
“I have a much better image now of what the Border Patrol is, because some of those people are just cops that are trying to save lives,” Nicolau said. “Not all of them are these nasty policeman that are bad people to immigrants.”
Propaganda — both foreign and domestic — is not only legal in the US, funding for specialized and targeted information campaigns is readily available and often extends into the millions of dollars.
Since 1948, the US had maintained the Smith-Mundt Act, banning domestic viewing of propaganda and pro-US information campaigns produced for a foreign market.
In 2012, that act was updated after it had been deemed obsolete. In the age of broader communication technology, the argument went, there is no way to avoid or block US citizens from being exposed “directly or indirectly” to material “in any medium or form of communication” produced by the State Department or the Broadcasting Board of Governors — the federal agency responsible for all government-funded media.
The modernization act came into effect in 2013 and essentially allows domestic access and dissemination of material produced with the intention of “public diplomacy,” such as propaganda produced with taxpayer's dollars.
Ganz said he doesn’t view his work as propaganda, and his hope is that the song gains momentum. "I'm loving this, the respect I'm getting. I just hope that somebody like [Colombian recording artist] Juanes, or somebody out there, maybe I can come and do a performance, because this is what I do."
He also proposed Shakira as a possible collaborator. Either way, Ganz told VICE News he's always available to perform at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
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Photo via Flickr.