Pop songs, cartoons aim to deter Central American youth from heading for US

US and Central American campaigns are deploying ominous cartoon characters and catchy tunes – not to mention some grandmotherly advice – to deter children from migrating north.

With thousands of minors trekking perilously from Central America through Mexico and into the United States, several nations are looking for new ways to halt the flow.

But can El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – with high rates of murder and unemployment – convince their citizens to stay put? And can the US persuade migrants that the “American Dream” may not be worth dying for?

They're giving it a shot – with cartoons, posters, and hit pop songs.

El Salvador this week launched a public service campaign to educate families about the risks of sending their kids to the US. The animated ad is presented like a storybook, with the voice of a young child reading the title, “The tale of the coyote,” and listing all the terrible things that frequently happen to unaccompanied minors along the northward journey.

“It’s all lies. We spent days without eating and he hit me,” one child tells viewers about the promises made by "coyotes," or smugglers, of safe passage.

Another child chimes in, “For me, the coyote sold me to other people who forced me to work and abused me.”

The commercial, complete with evil laughs and ominous drawings, is anything but cheerful. It ends with a serious lecture from a grandmotherly figure, and advises viewers to take care of and protect their children. “It’s our responsibility,” she warns.

The hope is that the message reaches any adult who might consider sending – or sending for – a child. The clip started playing "in all corners" of El Salvador on Tuesday, and is scheduled to air in parts of the US with large Salvadoran populations, like Washington D.C., Texas, and California.

"It's not right that unscrupulous people who profit from trafficking [humans] are creating rumors, confusing fathers and mothers so that they send their children to risk their lives," said Minister of Foreign Affairs Hugo Martínez.

Will it make a difference?

Some estimates have more than 90,000 migrants under 18 attempting to enter the US illegally across the Mexican border by year's end. Already the US has started deporting children and mothers, in hopes they carry a clear message back: Don’t risk the journey, you’ll be sent home.

The US launched a $1 million ad campaign in the region this month aimed at stemming the flow of young migrants. The “Danger Awareness Campaign” will utilize hundreds of billboards and some 6,500 TV and radio spots.  According to the Associated Press, a TV ad set to run in Guatemala shows a teen boy getting ready to leave home for the US, sending a strong warning to viewers.

His mother pleads with him not to go. He confides to his uncle -- already in the U.S. -- in a letter that she's warning him about the dangers of the gangs on the train that immigrants ride through Mexico, the cartels that kidnap and the days long walk in the desert. Ultimately, he writes his uncle, "he who doesn't take a chance, doesn't win." 

The next image is of the boy dead on the cracked desert floor. A voice over says smugglers' claims that new arrivals will easily get papers are false. The television and radio spots all finish with a similar parting message: "They are our future. Protect them."

In case the TV spots and billboards are too obvious, the US has had success with other approaches – like pop music – in the past. In the early 2000s the border patrol hired an agency to write songs about the risks of illegal immigration, reports the Associated Press. Lyrics included things like, "After some hours/ Abelardo opened his eyes/ And in the middle of the cold night/ Discovered his dead cousin at his side," set to an upbeat, accordion-filled tune. 

In 2009, the songs and other measures were credited with helping decrease the number of border-crossing-related deaths.

According to The Daily Beast, there’s a more recent US-penned hit filled with messaging about the risks of the journey north called “La Bestia,” or "The Beast." It’s a nickname for the freight trains that carry migrants across Mexico, and that are responsible for many deaths and lost limbs along the way. Rodolfo Hernandez wrote the lyrics, including: “They call her the Beast from the South, this wretched train of death. With the devil in the boiler, whistles, roars, twists and turns.”

“I really think that putting music to this message makes it very powerful, because people listen to the radio in their towns and their villages,” said “La Bestia” composer Carlo Nicolau. “The songs don’t accuse anyone of wrongdoing, there are no heroes or villains in these stories. They are just letting people know that their lives are in danger.”

To be sure, a new surge in Central American youths arriving at the US-Mexican border involves run-ins with armed gangs and corrupt police officers, threats of rape and robbery, and passages atop thundering freight trains or crossing quick-moving rivers. But such events have gone on for decades.

And so have campaigns trying to stem the flow.

An excerpt below from a conversation between a professor of sociology, David Spener, and a migrant from Mexico, published by the Economist in 2010, highlights how ads meant to deter migration or highlight the dangers of coyotes can be misinterpreted:

Spener: So, your opinion at this time is that people are better off crossing with a coyote.

Álvaro: I think so. But moreover, immigration itself has a poster there that says “Trust a coyote.” In other words, how does it say, saying that a coyote is better, that you shouldn't risk it on your own.

Spener: The Border Patrol says that? [incredulous]

Álvaro: Right. They have a poster there that I saw.

Spener: Where? On the Mexican side or the American side?

Álvaro: On the American side.

Spener: And what did it say?

Álvaro: It's there, in Spanish, and it says “It's better to pay a coyote than to cross alone.” And there's a cross painted there. People cross on their own and a lot of them don't make it. They die, they drown, and all that. And it's better, recommended, to pay a coyote.

Spener: Well, I've seen those posters, in fact I have a copy of one in my office. It's a photograph of the desert.

Álvaro: Right, of the desert. With a grave and a cross.

Spener: With a cross there and it says “He trusted a coyote.”

Álvaro: [repeats] He trusted a coyote!

Spener: And he wound up dead. That's the message, right?

Álvaro: Right. But no, that's not it. They're saying, a coyote is better than going it alone. That's how I understood it. A lot of people come on their own and that is what happens to them. But I didn't understand it very well. I just read it in passing.

Spener: In the detention center where you were?

Álvaro: Right, but I didn't read it very well. It's just my idea, my interpretation.


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