The Hit Song Secretly Paid for by the US Government
A decade ago, a song called "La Bestia" topped the Central American music charts. This is the secret history of that song - and how the US government paid for propaganda to deter illegal migration.
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This is the true story of illegal migrants being preyed on by criminal gangs; a train that maims or kills countless victims every year; an unknown Bar Mitzvah DJ from New York crooning his way to the top of the charts; and a secret propaganda effort by the United States government.
The Train of Death
Every year, hundreds of thousands of central American migrants risk their lives while hitching a ride north on a freight train known as La Bestia —The Beast. Others call it El Tren de la Muerte, or the Train of Death. The journey starts in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, through the freight network into Mexico City, where migrants can jump off to stowaway on other trains that lumber their way north to various outposts on the US-Mexican border.
The freight trains are designed to transport corn, cement, and minerals, not humans. As a result, countless people are killed or maimed each year as they ride. For those who survive the trip unscathed, they still face the prospect of human trafficking, violence, rape, or other unspeakable horrors by the criminal gangs that exploit desperate people hoping to make it across the American border to start a new life. It’s a train that has earned its grisly name and reputation.
Santiago Álvarez of Honduras was one such victim of La Bestia. When the train slowed, he climbed aboard, clambering his way to the roof. Everything seemed to be going to plan. But then, as El Pais reports, violent thieves climbed onto the roof of the train and began to prey on the migrants, hacking them with machetes if they didn’t comply:
As the metal cars clanged to a start and began to pick up speed, the assailants ran along the top, jumping from car to car, chasing migrants and brandishing machetes. Santiago didn’t realize what was happening until he heard the screams of a young man being hacked in the back by the attackers. “I panicked and ran. A guy was chasing me. He was right behind me. I managed to jump between two sets of cars, but when I turned to look back, he was even closer. It was in that moment, when I turned to look back, that I went down, and fell down between the rails.
The train ran him over, the enormous weight of the train grinding off his leg as though it were butter, melted under the oppressive Mexican sun. Álvarez survived—barely. Astonishingly, his dream of making it north survived too. After recovering, Álvarez returned to Mexico, where he managed to find a prosthetic leg with the help of an NGO. But as he finally got close to the border, a criminal gang attacked him, dousing him with gasoline, before realizing they didn’t have matches to hand to set him ablaze. Instead, they beat him, nearly to death.
Álvarez again recovered and, undeterred, finally tried to swim across the Río Bravo. The currents swept away his prosthetic leg. He was captured, then deported back to Honduras. Permanently disabled, Álvarez now supports his wife and young son on about $360 per month. But unlike so many others who encountered La Bestia, he lived to tell the tale.
This is not a train you want to ride.
“La Bestia” Climbs the Charts
Hanging on the railcars
Of this iron beast
Migrants go as cattle
To the slaughterhouse
Taking hell’s route
Within a cloud of pain
These are lyrics from a pop hit about the Train of Death, a song called “La Bestia” that was released about a decade ago. It was popular throughout Central America. The song offers a cautionary tale, a warning that migrants who try to follow the route north, whether by train or by foot, are only sending themselves to the slaughterhouse, a cloud of pain produced either by the train, or by the criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people along the way.
In 2014, listeners to Central American radio stations would regularly tune into the song, which is incredibly catchy. You can have a listen for yourself here:
But nobody in Central America knew the song’s bizarre, controversial origin story, a secret that the US government didn’t want them to know — an origin story that raises questions about the role of government deception, even in pursuit of laudable goals, and the ways in which people can subtly, subconsciously be persuaded not to take mortal risks. And it all starts with a secretly funded PR firm, a struggling freelance composer in Queens, and an obscure Bar Mitzvah disc jockey.
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