Why Colombia's Leftist Guerrillas Are Defecting

  • Share
  • Read Later
J.J. Bonilla / AFP / Getty

A group of demobilized fighters from the 47th Column of FARC disembark from a military helicopter in Manizalez, department of Caldas, Colombia, on Jan. 23, 2008

At a ramshackle radio station nestled in former guerrilla territory, a Colombian soldier-DJ dedicates a country-and-western-style ballad to all the rebels out there having second thoughts about la revolución. In the song, a former guerrilla touts the benefits of disarming. "My life has changed," he declares. "Now I've got a girlfriend. I'm with my family. I give thanks to God."

The message-laden music is part of an army propaganda blitz that includes radio spots, billboards and leaflets dropped by helicopter. Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the nation's largest rebel group, known as the FARC — are told that by turning themselves in, their sins will be forgiven and they can start anew. The campaign is one of the pillars of a broader U.S.-backed military offensive that has driven the FARC out of the most important areas of Colombia and cut the size of the rebel army in half. Since President Alvaro Uribe was first elected in 2002, more than 12,000 FARC fighters have demobilized, including a record 3,027 last year, according to the Colombian army. And because they made the decision to desert on their own, the former guerrillas are more likely to remain on the war's sidelines.

That hasn't always been the case on the other side. Since 2003, about 30,000 right-wing paramilitary fighters who battled the FARC have disarmed. But the bulk of the paramilitaries were ordered by their commanders to lay down their weapons en masse as part of a peace process with the Bogotá government. Some did so only grudgingly and have since formed new militias that are dedicated to drug-trafficking. "If they haven't changed or don't want to change, it's much easier for these fighters to fall back into their former lifestyle," says Mariana Díaz Kraus of the Bogotá think tank Ideas for Peace.

By contrast, as the army hammers rebel positions, many of the FARC deserters say they were desperate to get out. "Every day it's one or two deaths in combat or five or six deaths in a bombing," says a 21-year-old former rebel explosives expert who goes by the nom de guerre Visages. "Many rebels decide that they better get out before it happens to them."

Even FARC higher-ups are throwing in the towel. Perhaps the most high-profile deserter was Elda Mosquera, a one-eyed female comandante better known as Karina, who led a series of devastating guerrilla attacks in the late 1990s. Hemmed in by soldiers last year, Karina cut a deal for herself and her rebel boyfriend. Now she appears on armed forces radio to urge her former comrades-in-arms to give up. "For us, it's much better for these terrorists to turn in their weapons than to die on the battlefield," says General Miguel Pérez, 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."

The exodus has produced a virtuous circle for the army. 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. Last year, an army raid that killed FARC spokesman and No. 3 leader Raúl Reyes was based on information provided by a rebel turncoat. A few days later, the bodyguard of Iván Ríos, a member of the FARC's ruling secretariat, pulled off a mafia-style hit job. He executed his boss with a shot to the forehead, cut off his right hand as proof, then turned himself in to the army to collect a $2 million reward.

Visages, the rebel explosives expert, says he initially swallowed the FARC's rhetoric about Marxist revolution and social justice. But after joining, he watched as firing squads gunned down rebels who were unfairly accused of spying for the army. He says the final straw came when the guerrillas forced his pregnant rebel girlfriend to get an abortion. Visages wore civilian clothes and operated in towns, so it was easy for him to get out. When the FARC sent him to collect an extortion payment from a cattle rancher, Visages turned himself in at an army checkpoint. But for uniformed rebels operating in the jungle, escaping often involves hiking through the wilderness for days and avoiding rebel patrols, because the FARC executes deserters.

While in custody at the army base in La Macarena, Visages receives meals, new clothes, cigarettes and even stationery to write to his family. Wearing a T-shirt, jeans and crew-cut hair, the soft-spoken former rebel doesn't look or sound especially lethal as he sits on his bunk inside a well-guarded tent and composes letters to his girlfriend, who is still involved with the FARC. But some of the troops around him can barely contain their rage, because Visages admitted to setting off a car bomb last year that killed two soldiers and badly wounded three others. However, the good treatment pays off when Visages is questioned about his rebel activities. Eager to cooperate, he quickly gives up the identities and addresses of about two dozen FARC collaborators, many of whom are related. By the end of the hour-long interview, an army officer has filled two sheets of white paper with rebel code names like Fusible, Dumas, Chaleco and La Negra and has sketched out a kind of FARC family tree.

Like Visages, most FARC deserters are impoverished young men and women with long rap sheets and few marketable skills. Once transferred to Bogotá and other big cities, they temporarily settle in government-run halfway houses where they can earn high school degrees and take part in job-training programs. But given the FARC's nasty reputation for kidnapping and murder, few Colombians are willing to hire demobilized guerrillas. And there's always the danger that revenge-seeking rebels will track down the fugitives. But now that he has extracted himself from the war, Visages claims it's all good: "Let's see what new opportunities come along."