Editor's note: GlobalPost's correspondent John Otis had a rare opportunity to embed with the Colombian army during a mission against the FARC. This two-part series details his time in the battle zone and the rise in rebel deserters.
LA MACARENA, Colombia — The earnest plea calling on Marxist guerrillas to give up the fight comes from an unlikely messenger.
The speaker is Elda Mosquera, a one-eyed female guerrilla commander, better known as Karina, who in the 1990s led a series of devastating guerrilla attacks. But last year, Karina turned herself in, and she now promotes the Colombian government’s demobilization program.
The propaganda blitz includes radio spots, posters and leaflets dropped from helicopters over rebel-infested areas. Guerrillas are told that by disarming they can begin new lives with the help of government housing, education and job-training.
Since President Alvaro Uribe was first elected in 2002, more than 12,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla group known as the FARC, have turned themselves in.
The number includes a record 3,027 FARC rebels who demobilized last year. Most were green recruits who quickly became fed up with life in the jungle. But some, like Karina, were high-ranking commanders with years of experience.
For the Colombia army, the demobilizations have produced a kind of virtuous circle. Deserters often provide key intelligence for army operations and as the military strikes more blows against the FARC, more guerrillas lose their will to fight.
One of the army’s greatest triumphs, last year’s bombardment of a guerrilla camp that killed the FARC spokesman and No. 3 leader Raul Reyes, was based on information provided by a rebel turncoat.
“For us it’s much better for these terrorists to turn in their weapons than to die on the battlefield,” said Gen. Miguel Perez, commander of the army’s rapid reaction force based in the southern town of La Macarena. “That’s because when rebels desert it demoralizes the remaining guerrillas.”
One of the latest FARC deserters is a 21-year-old explosives expert who goes by the nom de guerre Visages. In an interview inside a canvas tent surrounded by guards, Visages says he was drawn into the FARC by its rhetoric of Marxist revolution and social justice.
But later he realized that rebel commanders enjoyed all the perks — like vehicles and spending money — while the grunts did most of the fighting and dying. Visages decided to quit after a FARC commander forced his pregnant rebel girlfriend to get an abortion.
And as the army offensive intensifies, he says that more and more rebels want to desert.
“Everyday it’s one or two deaths in combat or five or six deaths in a bombing,” he says. “Many rebels decide that they better get out before it happens to them.”
Visages was a FARC militiaman who wore civilian clothes and operated in towns and villages so it was easy for him to desert. When the FARC sent him on a mission to collect an extortion payment from a cattle rancher, he turned himself in at an army checkpoint.
Disgruntled rebels in the jungle, however, must hike through the wilderness for days and avoid guerrilla patrols because the FARC executes deserters.
Visages receives three meals a day at the army base as well as new clothes, cigarettes and magazines. But not all the troops are thrilled by his presence. Visages admitted to detonating a car bomb last year that killed two soldiers and seriously wounded three others.
“How do you feel now about setting off explosives?” asks one army interrogator. “Are you sorry for what you’ve done?”
Visages replies that he was only following orders.
Before the deserter is transferred to Bogota to begin the slow transition back to civilian life, the army wants information. So, Visages is grilled by police investigators and an army officer.
Sitting across a wooden desk from Col. Alfonso Yunga, commander of the army’s Third Mobile Brigade, Visages quickly gives up the identities and locations of FARC collaborators. By the end of the hour-long session, Yungas has a list of about two dozen rebels with pseudonyms like “Fusible,” “Dumas,” “Cheleco” and “La Negra.”
Though the FARC has been reduced from about 18,000 fighters at its peak a decade ago to about 9,000 today, the rebel organization continues to recruit and press-gang teenagers into its ranks. So, the army is stepping up its civic action programs to win over young Colombians.
One efforts sends soldier-musicians into villages to teach guitar. Then there’s Armed Forces radio which broadcasts a steady stream of propaganda, talk shows and music designed to prevent youths from joining the rebels and to break the will of those who have already taken up arms against the government.
“My life has changed,” sings a former FARC rebel in a song tauting the benefits of disarming. “Now I’ve got a girlfriend. I’m with my family. I give thanks to God.”
Read the first part of this series, about our reporter's time in the battle zone.