Into the jungle with Colombian army

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MARCO WERMAN: For four decades now, the government of Colombia has been battling the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. The United States classifies the FARC as a terrorist organization, and has backed the Colombian army in the fight. In recent years, the tide has turned in favor of the Colombian forces, but a clear victory is not quite theirs, not yet. John Otis sent us this report from La Macarena

JOHN OTIS: These elite commandos of the Colombian Army's Puma Company are preparing for a high-risk operation. Within 24 hours, helicopters will deposit them deep in the jungle to pursue FARC rebels. The soldiers will have to jump out of the choppers and rappel down ropes, a maneuver they practice by leaping out of a 50-foot-tall tree. These veteran commandos brim with confidence. But a decade ago, the Colombian Army appeared to be losing the war. Back then, the FARC had 18,000 guerrillas who overran towns and army bases and kidnapped hundreds of soldiers. But with the help of better intelligence, improved military cooperation and billions in US aid, the Colombian military has turned the tide in the war. US Ambassador William Brownfield says Colombia's best troops are better than the Green Berets at jungle warfare. Last year, the Colombian Army pulled off its most spectacular operation when commandos rescued 15 rebel-held hostages, including three US military contractors.

SOLDIERS: [chanting]

OTIS: The FARC, in turn, has been reduced to about 9,000 fighters. Colombian troops, who were once glued to their bases, now spend months at a time in the jungle tracking the rebels. That's why they're now more likely to suffer from land mines injuries and tropical diseases than combat wounds. As evidence of the military's progress, Private Jose Villalba of Puma Company points out that the Army's training facility here in the southern state of Meta used to be a FARC camp.

PVT. JOSE VILLALBA: [speaking Spanish]

INTERPRETER: We feel like we are winning the war because we expelled the rebels from territory where they thought they were untouchable.

OTIS: Villalba and his fellow soldiers are now targeting one of the FARC's most crafty military commanders, known as Mono Jojoy. Army officers say they've pinpointed a camp housing one of Mono Jojoy's security teams. They plan to catch these rebels off-guard in a pre-dawn raid using night-vision goggles. But bad weather delays the operation for several hours and by then the sun has risen.

GEN. MIGUEL PEREZ: [speaking in Spanish]

OTIS: Operation leader Miguel Perez says the guerrillas are now awake. They've eaten breakfast and have their rifles in their hands. His men have lost a critical advantage. After Colombian air force planes bomb the rebel camp, helicopters hover just above the treetops and drop the troops into the jungle. But as the troops push through vines and underbrush, it soon becomes clear that the FARC fled this area months ago. The military mobilized 11 aircraft, dropped nine bombs, and sent three dozen soldiers into a patch of jungle with no guerrillas. The only human being the troops come across is a farmer driving his pickup along a rutted dirt road.

FARMER: [speaking Spanish]

OTIS: The failed mission illustrates why it's so hard to completely crush the FARC. The rebels first took up arms in 1964 and though the FARC has been battered, the guerrillas can still find plenty of hiding places in Colombia's remote jungles and mountains. General Perez admits his troops can't chase down every last guerrilla. The idea is to score enough military victories that the rebels lose their will to fight. One sign of success is the rising number of FARC deserters, who often provide key intelligence for army operations. But not all their facts checks out. In fact, the jungle assault that turned up nothing was based on faulty information from a FARC informant. OTIS: The soldiers of Puma Company regroup in a clearing and radio in their request for a helicopter pick up. Though they didn't deliver a stinging blow to the FARC, they'll have more chances. And they're relieved all of the 36 soldiers who rappelled into the jungle are coming back alive. For The World, I'm John Otis, La Macarena, Colombia .