One of the biggest musical hits on Central American radio is, ironically, a song about the perils of traveling to the United States illegally.
The song is called “La Bestia,” Spanish for “The Beast,” the name of a freight train that thousands of people – many of them Central Americans – ride from Mexico in a desperate effort to get to the U.S. border.
The train, and trip, is so notorious it is known as a “train of death.” Many “Bestia” riders have been raped, killed or kidnapped by criminals who prey on them.
What most of the Central Americans who listen to the song do not suspect, however, is that it is part of the U.S. campaign to dissuade them from trying to enter the United States illegally. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioned the song.
Faced with a border crisis that has seen tens of thousands of Central American unaccompanied minors cross into Texas illegally in just the last year, the Obama administration has been scrambling to stem the tide by seeking nearly $4 billion in emergency funds, and trying to work with the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to keep people from making the dangerous trip north.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioned the song with the goal of getting its “Stay Home” message through a catchy tune. At present, it is playing on 21 radio stations in the three nations.
The song’s composer, Carlo Nicolau, who is Mexican-American, said it was awkward to create a work for an agency that caused angst among so many of his friends and relatives.
“I thought I was really going to bed with the devil,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’d heard from many people that some of these Border Patrol agents are pretty shrewd. But I’ve learned that a lot of them are risking their lives to help people not die.”
Part of the song goes: “Migrants from everywhere, entrenched along the rail ties. Far away from where they come, further away from where they go. They call her the Beast from the South, this wretched train of death. With the devil in the boiler, whistles, roars, twists and turns.”
The song makes references to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of the region’s most ruthless gangs. MS-13 is said to be deeply involved in human trafficking and in crimes against the people who ride “La Bestia.”
The lyrics are set against the beat of the marimba, a wooden xylophone-like instrument from Guatemala.
The song is part of the Border Patrol agency’s million-dollar “Dangers Awareness Campaign,” which tries to get parents to see sending their kids on the journey with smugglers as too risky and not in the best interests of their children.
The campaign’s more visible and better-known components are billboards and multi-media public service announcements.
The CBP, the Daily Beast said, scoffs at depictions of its role in the song “La Bestia” as propaganda, preferring to see it as a humanitarian campaign that seeks to save lives. The agency rejects the notion that it is tricking listeners who have no idea it is behind the song.
“It’s more important to us that the message be delivered,” Laurel Smith, director of communications and outreach for CBP told The Daily Beast. “We want to make sure the audience is listening.”
The D.C.-based advertising agency Elevation that is working with CBP also took part in “No Mas Cruces” campaign. That campaign, launched in 2004, refers to the crosses on graves of people who died trying to cross the Sonoran desert.