Deserting from the FARC

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MARCO WERMAN: South of Cuba in Columbia the military continues to pound away at leftist gorillas. But what's even more demoralizing for the revolutionary armed forces of Columbia, the rebel group known as the FARC, is that thousands of its fighters are simply giving up. Many FARC rebels, sensing they're losing the war against the government are turning themselves in and they're turning over valuable information to the Columbian army. Reporter John Otis has the story.


JOHN OTIS: On Columbian armed forces radio a former gorilla sings the praises of giving up and leaving the war behind.


OTIS: My life has changed, he sings. Now I've got a girlfriend. I'm with my family. I give thanks to God. The song is part of an army propaganda blitz that includes radio spots, posters, and leaflets dropped over rebel infested areas. And it's working. Since President Alvaro Uribe took office seven years ago more than 12,000 FARC fighters have demobilized. Most are green recruits who became disenchanted with life in the jungle. But about 1000 of the deserters were midlevel commanders. Perhaps the most high profile deserter is Elda Mosqeura. A one-eyed female commander better known as Karina she led a series of devastating FARC attacks. But last year Karina turned herself in and now promotes the government's demobilization program on the radio.


OTIS: For the Columbian army the desertions have produced a kind of virtuous circle. That's because gorilla turncoats often provide intelligence for army operations. And as the military strikes more blows against the FARC, more gorillas lose their will to fight and turn themselves in. Colonel Cesar Guauta is operations chief for the army's first mobile brigade in former rebel stronghold of La Macarena.


OTIS: He says the desertions are breaking the FARC. They demoralize the remaining fighters and provide the location of rebel camps and arms cashes.


OTIS: Guauta leads me into a tent to show off the latest rebel deserter, a 21-year-old FARC explosives expert who goes by the nom de guerre Visages. Some here are hostile towards Visages because he detonated a car bomb last year that killed two soldiers. Like many impoverished teenagers, Visages says he was drawn into the FARC by its rhetoric of Marxist revolution and social justice. He decided to quit after a FARC commander forced his pregnant rebel girlfriend to get an abortion. Visages says as the army offensive intensifies more and 6more rebels want to desert.


OTIS: Visages operated in rural towns so it was easy for him to find an army patrol and turn himself in. For rebels in the jungle deserting is far more difficult and those who are caught by the FARC are executed.


OTIS: Cooks at the army base in La Macarena provide Visages with three meals a day. He also gets new clothes, cigarettes, and magazines. But the army wants something in return. After dinner an intelligence officer presses Visages for the names of FARC militia men.


OTIS: Visages cooperates. By the time the interview ends the army officer comes away with a list of more than 20 plainclothes FARC collaborators.


OTIS: Visages will soon be off to Bogota where a government program gives deserters temporary housing, education, and job training. But the FARC continues to recruit and press gang teenagers into its ranks. So the army is trying to win them over before the gorillas can.


OTIS: One program sends army musicians into villages to perform and teach youngsters guitar. And back at armed forces radio the DJs have a fulltime hob saturating the airways with stories, songs, and speeches to persuade the gorillas to give up the fight. For The World I'm John Otis, La Macarena, Columbia.