Pubdate: Mon, 19 Jan 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul, Reporting from Villarrica, Colombia


Desertions Rise As Status and Perks Are Replaced With Constant
Harassment by the Colombian Army. but the Guerrilla Group Is Known for
Its Resilience.

Life was good for "Ernesto" when he joined Colombia's largest rebel
group at age 14. He loved the leftist fighters' swagger, the perfumed
rebel groupies and the stolen SUVs he and his buddies drove
unchallenged over the roads of this cattle- and coffee-growing zone.

But eight years later, Ernesto's life as a foot soldier in the 25th
Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had lost
its charm. Gone were the status and the free-spending ways, a
lifestyle financed by kidnappings and extortions here in the
west-central state of Tolima.

In their place came constant harassment from the Colombian army, which
deployed 1,200 additional soldiers here in May, 10 times the existing
garrison. Hunger became a constant, and the peasants who once were
supporters began to ignore him and collaborate with the army.

"The army never let up. Wherever you slept, you'd better be gone early
the next day because soldiers would be there soon," said Ernesto, 22,
who gave an alias for security concerns. "We were really suffering."

In November, Ernesto made his separate peace, enlisting in a
government demobilization program that promises education and housing
in exchange for disarmament.

The surrender of Ernesto and 2,900 other fighters and urban supporters
didn't make headlines like those generated by the Colombian military's
more dramatic successes last year: the killing in March of the FARC's
second in command, Raul Reyes, and the rescue in July of three U.S.
subcontractors and onetime presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

But military officials say the 20% increase in desertions last year
from the 2007 level is equally compelling evidence of their increasing
battlefield dominance over the FARC, which the military has been
fighting for more than 40 years.

That success, substantially underwritten by U.S. taxpayers through the
Plan Colombia aid program, should not be confused with victory. The
FARC has demonstrated its resilience time and again -- and, if Ernesto
is to be believed, is now just waiting out President Alvaro Uribe's
term in hopes it will have an easier time under his successor.

But what is clear is that added pressure from Colombia's military last
year caused the rebels to lose control of significant chunks of
geography, including this crucial crossroads zone connecting rebel
forces in the jungle plains to the east with FARC drug-trafficking
operations on the Pacific coast.

"This year, the army took the secure center of the country, consisting
of the big cities, and pushed out the internal limits of what they
control, closer to Colombia's true geographic frontiers," said an
American government official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. He spoke
anonymously because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.

'Presence' Is Down

In an interview late last month at a police graduation ceremony in the
Tolima town of El Espinal, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel
Santos said the FARC "has a presence" in 188 of the 1,099 counties,
down from 514 a couple of years ago. "That to me was the most
important of all our accomplishments," he said.

Colombian and U.S. military experts say the strategy is producing a
cycle of dividends: Desertions such as Ernesto's lead to better
intelligence, which leads to more battlefield success and a weaker

Locally, the climax of the strategy came last month when the Colombian
army cornered and killed Ernesto's former commander, 25th Front leader
Englio Gaona Ospina, alias Bertil, as he hid on a jungle cliffside a
few miles north of here.

Although the members of his eight-man security detail had already
given up or been captured, Bertil was defiant to the end: When
soldiers demanded that he surrender, he threw a hand grenade at them.

In the end, Bertil was undone by his own men. Intelligence provided by
demobilized FARC members was crucial in bringing down the rebel
leader, Colombian army officials said.

"The front is done. It's dismantled. Bertil was with the FARC for 22
years. It's a big loss," Ernesto said at a safe house in the state
capital, Ibague, that he shares with four other recently demobilized
rebels from his unit. The slight but powerfully built former squad
leader spoke with a calm demeanor and fiercely flashing eyes. "It's
gone from 300 fighters when I joined to less than 50."

In Villarrica, the tide turned with the arrival in May of the
additional soldiers from the Ibague-based 6th Army Brigade, including
a 120-member mobile brigade unit modeled after U.S. Special Forces
teams. The army launched the offensive with one objective: to wipe out
the 25th Front and Bertil.

The army built a base in a pasture just north of this town's central
plaza, bringing security and generating goodwill among residents long
accustomed to violence.

For Villarrica, that's quite a change from the dark days of October
2007, when the FARC gunned down a mayoral candidate and left many of
the town's 5,000 residents too afraid to venture out of their houses
after dark. The FARC had been in de facto control of the town and its
environs since 1999, when rebels briefly took over, dynamiting several

To get here from the closest big city, Melgar in the Magdalena River
valley, visitors must travel three hours over winding roads that cut
through sparsely populated mountain terrain that provided rebels with
ideal cover. Some residents expressed disbelief that a Times reporter
made the trip in 2007 shortly after the mayoral candidate was killed
and when FARC control was still uncontested.

The area was such a fertile ground for extortion that FARC units from
outside the zone used to frequent the region to blackmail local oil
services firms that worked in various fields.

"How much has it improved? One hundred percent," said Mayor Hernando
Trujillo. "Now, we can leave town to work our farms, take drives. We
have been waiting for this for a long time."

'People Are Happier'

At a packed Christmas Eve service at Our Lady of the Miraculous
Medallion, several residents expressed appreciation for the army.

"Lately we have had God's blessing in all its meaning," said Roman
Catholic priest Jose Peralta. "People are happier and less suspicious
of one another. Businesses are reopening and there is more prosperity.
Let's hope the changes last a long time."

Added patrols and checkpoints also created supply problems for the
rebels, who depended on sympathetic farmers or rebel family members to
bring food and clothing to drop points in the zone.

At the same time, the army stepped up its campaign to urge rebels to
lay down their arms and join the demobilization program, promising
cash for intelligence. The message was written on thousands of
leaflets thrown from helicopters over the rugged mountains ringing
this town, and read out regularly over the 6th Army Brigade's radio
station in Ibague. The army says it even knows the decimated 25th
Front's remaining soldiers and unit commanders: Accumulated
intelligence has enabled it to re-create an organizational chart.

Promised a Reward

Ernesto was reluctant to dial the phone number given out over the
radio, fearing that he could end up being killed in the process, a
fear heightened by the recent scandal of "false positives," in which
the Colombian army killed civilians and later claimed them as battle

But he called and agreed to meet an army patrol at a predetermined
location. He later surrendered his machine gun and was promised a $500
reward. For providing intelligence that led to the capture of an
extortion specialist known as Chucho, he was promised a second sum of
$25,000. He said, smiling, that he was still "patiently waiting" for
the government to pay up.

"The FARC treated its people well. They taught me how to read,"
Ernesto said. "But it was time to start a new life. I want to be an
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake