Border Patrol Tries New Tune to Deter Crossers

Times Staff Writer

The accordion-laced Mexican ranchera bounces along with the kind of bravado that has chronicled the exploits of revolutionaries, cowboys and outlaws.

This song spotlights a young immigrant stumbling through the desert in the U.S. He gets thirsty, watches people die and reaches an epiphany: It’s OK to return to Mexico.

“Since I was a kid, I was told a man never gives up,” the man sings. “Now that I’m on the other side [in the U.S.], I realize they were wrong.”


The tune is part of a unique U.S. Border Patrol Spanish-language media campaign aimed at channeling the agency’s safe borders message through the language and culture of Mexican border crossers.

Employing the tradition of Mexican corridos, narrative songs, the campaign invokes themes of death, religion and machismo to discourage people from braving the dangerous journey north. Two songs tell of young immigrants whose dreams of crossing into the U.S. are crushed. Two 30-second television spots depict the aftermath of failed journeys: a funeral procession through a Mexican pueblo and a haunted graveyard with voices of dead migrants.

The campaign represents a break with previous outreach efforts for the Border Patrol, which has often been criticized for underemphasizing border safety. The ads’ producer is an advertising agency based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in Latino marketing.

The $1.5-million campaign, called No Mas Cruces en La Frontera -- No More Crosses on the Border -- is scheduled to launch this summer and will mark the first time the U.S. Border Patrol has bought airtime in Mexico for radio and television advertising.

“We want to create some buzz,” said Assistant Chief Salvador Zamora, one of the originators of the campaign. “We don’t expect that a person will listen and turn off the radio and turn off the TV and all of a sudden be enlightened to do something different.”

The spots, Zamora and other officials said, are intended to plant seeds of doubt among those contemplating an illegal crossing.

“I get chills just listening,” said Arturo Hernandez, one of a group of migrants who heard and watched the campaign spots during an interview at a migrant shelter in Tijuana.

Hernandez, 22, said he got lost and almost died in the Arizona desert. Recently deported from the U.S., Hernandez said the campaign could work.

“I think it could convince people if they know the consequences,” he said in Spanish.

But others say migrants’ dreams of a better life outweigh the risks grimly portrayed in the ads.

“Unless you’ve lived it, you wouldn’t believe it,” said Gerardo Villareal. The 40-year-old, speaking in Spanish, said he would keep trying to cross despite the hardships.

Officials hope that the campaign takes on a life of its own, with television and radio public service announcements and posters in stores and businesses.

One Mexican film producer, Emilio Montiel, a mariachi singer-actor who makes movies about illegal immigration, has included both TV spots on the DVD and video versions of his films.

“It’s a good message for the people,” said Montiel, whose production company is based in Tijuana. “You have to think about the risks you run in coming to the U.S.”

But some experts say most immigrants are already aware of the border’s dangers and choose to cross anyway.

“The campaign is not really educating people. They’re already educated,” said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. “They’ve already concluded it’s a manageable risk, so seeing tombstones in a cemetery isn’t going to do it.”

Border Patrol officials haven’t decided yet where to run the ads but said they would likely focus on the Mexican states of Michoacan and Zacatecas, historically the birthplace of large numbers of emigrants. The spots will also air in some U.S. markets to dissuade people from encouraging loved ones to cross.

The Border Patrol has had other outreach efforts since the late 1990s, when there was a sharp increase in deaths near the border. But those in-house videos were shown only in detention facilities.

Seeking a more innovative approach, the agency contracted with Elevacion Ltd., an advertising agency whose clients include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Before creating the ads, the agency sent researchers to Mexican villages to study migrants’ motives. “It was interesting.... A lot of it was rite of passage. It was almost like ‘learn to drive, lose my virginity, now I’ll cross the border,’ ” said Jim Learned, the firm’s managing director.

The songs the agency produced tell of young men whose journeys turn into harrowing ordeals. Many immigrants in such cases tough it out and continue, but turning back is also an option. The message: “Chickening out is also a manly thing to do,” according to the agency’s translation.

In the song “En La Raya” (On the Line), a young man in anguish over the death of a friend marks his grave with a cross made of sticks and swears to return home and never cross the border again.

The slickly produced television spots focus on the pain of losing loved ones. One shows a tearful young man carrying the coffin of his dead brother, his narration cracking with emotion. The other, a graveyard scene, features the voices of dead migrants saying why they tried crossing to the U.S.

“There are many reasons for crossing the border. None are worth your life,” the commercial concludes.

The campaign used Mexican actors, composers and musicians. The funeral procession was filmed in a pueblo outside Mexico City.

Giving the campaign an authentic feeling of Mexico was essential, Zamora said. The Border Patrol’s involvement will not be acknowledged, and radio and TV spots in Mexico won’t say who produced them, he said. “It’s important not to give any hints that this is a U.S.-sponsored program, because it’s all about credibility,” he said.

At the Tijuana shelter, the migrants were surprised that the U.S. Border Patrol was behind the campaign, saying it captures the spirit of Mexican songs and accurately depicts village life.

Even so, most said similar public service announcements by the Mexican government have been running for years and have not altered behavior.

Carlos Leonel, 24, from Chiapas, said he was talented and hardworking but tired of being penniless. Speaking Spanish, he said he would soon try to cross and won’t stop until he lives his dream. His friends from Chiapas, he said, share his mission and don’t plan on turning back.

“We’re like U.S. soldiers. We never give up,” Leonel said.