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9 September 2014

My musical taste spans from embarrassing quirks to pretentious obscurities and all sorts of geographies in between, though it’s yet to reach Central America. And so it is that one of the year’s chart-topping hits on the Guatemalan, Honduran, and El Salvadoran airwaves has flown – or rumbled, I should say – completely under my radar.

The song is called “La Bestia”, or The Beast, and it tells the tale of a dangerous freight train boarded by struggling families in southern Mexico in search of opportunity in America. And while the lyrics are dire, the song is, well, fun. The rhythm is incredibly catchy. It’s the sort of track that attractive teenagers might dance to in a beer commercial from the 1990s. And perhaps oddest of all is the song’s producer. From the people who brought you the internet, fake moon landings and freedom: it’s the US government.

It turns out that “La Bestia” is actually part of a targeted campaign by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the track commissioned to prevent deaths while crossing the border illegally. Just don’t tell that to unwitting fans – the song is played without any disclaimer. Which makes it all a bit… fishy. If propaganda is defined as spreading information to influence opinions, then this surely fits the bill.

And now, CBP’s cousins in the US State Department have just dropped a fresh new video release, titled: Welcome to the “Islamic State” land (ISIS/ISIL). Filled with gore and just over a minute in length, it uses the terror group’s own footage to mock their message, call out their hypocrisy and hopefully undercut their recruitment.

But while “La Bestia” was aimed squarely south of the border, this one could be used for domestic consumption, at would-be jihadists in the 50 states. We’re now on somewhat shaky ground. Domestic propaganda has a long and complicated history in America – one might remember a certain TV campaign by so-called “independent analysts” to spread the Pentagon’s talking points during the Iraq war.

But the wisdom and efficacy of spreading subtle domestic messages is one thing. An entirely different issue is talent. Are the government’s spin-doctors at the top of their game? Does the propaganda work?

Surely images of gore and beheadings, however unsavoury, run the risk of inspiring the carnage-craving would-be terrorists, not deterring them. And the same could be said for “La Bestia”. Although the goal was to warn, I’m not sure that’s the message. I can’t help but think this is sort of the Spanish version of “Born To Be Wild” – that train might be dangerous, but isn’t it exciting? Just give it a try. What have you got to lose?

But then again, I’m not the target audience. And just maybe that’s the point.

Daniel Giacopelli is a producer at Monocle 24


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