Even guerrilla fighters love Christmas lights.
At least that is what one Colombian advertising agency and the Colombian government believe with their demobilization campaign called “Operation Bethlehem” that literally hopes to light a path for escaping guerrillas looking to put down their arms.
The Bogotá-based ad agency Lowe SSP3 has been working for a number of years with the Colombian government on campaigns to attract members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to demobilize. After learning that the FARC is shuffling its soldiers around the country to avoid desertion, this year’s holiday season campaign has put five powerful beacons of light in town plazas near where the FARC are known to be.
The FARC, founded in the mid-1960s, are Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla movement. The Marxist rebel group has in recent years moved into drug trafficking as a means to support its activities and is believed by some to be the Andean country’s largest drug trafficking organization.
The beacons, together with thousands of tiny lights dropped by the Colombian military along paths travelled by the guerrillas, are meant to function as guiding lights for defecting FARC rebels' escapes.
Along with the beacons and lights, the ad agency has also put up glow-in-the-dark billboards with the phrase “Guerrilla’s, Follow the Light” along the river pathways travelled by the FARC, and attached glow-in-the-dark stickers to vehicles believed to be carrying food to the insurgents.
The lights and beacons have been implemented with the goal that a fleeing guerrilla fighter would not have to walk more than 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles, to reach the beacon.
A video produced by Lowe SSP3 for television and the web shows Colombian soldiers scattering the tiny lights from helicopters and on the ground as well as soldiers turning on the beacons in towns throughout Colombia. The beacons will be in the departments of Meta, Putumayo, Cauca, Norte de Santander and Caquetá.
“Follow the light that will guide you to your family and friends. Demobilize,” the ad ends. “Everything is possible in Christmas time.”
One concern not brought up by the agency and the Colombian government is that the beacons, which can be seen from miles away, could become targets for shelling by the FARC.
“Operation Bethlehem” follows up on last year’s successful campaign entitled “Rivers of Light,” which floated hundreds of plastic balls filled with gifts and hopeful messages down rivers used by the FARC. The award-winning project allegedly prompted 180 guerrilla members to leave the FARC, including a high-ranking commander who brought along his entire group and a cache of weapons.
This year’s project comes as the FARC and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos are holding peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The talks, the first of their kind since 1999, are moving slowly but the Colombian government hopes to have a peace deal within months.
The issues on the table in the talks include land reform, the end of armed conflict, guarantees for political opposition and citizen participation, drug trafficking and the rights of victims of the conflict. Thousands have been killed in the conflict between the FARC and the Colombian government and an estimated 3.6 million Colombians have been internally displaced.
Despite the peace talks and a unilateral cease-fire declared by the rebels, the conflict between the two sides still rages. Earlier this month, some 20 rebels were killed by the Colombian military and last weekend the FARC were allegedly responsible for the killing of one civilian and the wounding of three others during a bombing in the village of Caloto, in the department of Cauca.
Since 2001, it is estimated that FARC numbers have dropped from 16,000 to 8,000 due in part to the demobilization effort, but also to the strong arm tactics of former President Alvaro Uribe, who had current President Santos as his defense minister.
The military effort by Uribe has also led to hundreds of human rights cases from the 2000s that coincided with major battlefield gains by Colombia's U.S.-backed military against the leftist guerrilla. Colombian military units have also colluded with right-wing death squads responsible for the killings of thousands of suspected rebel sympathizers.
“Operation Bethlehem” hopes to be a foil to the more violent tactics employed in military operations.
“If this is going to end anyway, don't be the last one dead," said Jose Miguel Sokoloff, Lowe & Partner's chief creative officer, according to AdAge.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.