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Colombia's 'Operation Bethlehem' Guides Guerrilla Fighters Out of Jungle

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In Colombia's ongoing effort to persuade guerrilla fighters hidden deep in the jungle to defect from the armed struggle, Bogota agency Lowe SSP3 is using the holiday season to literally light a path for them to follow in "Operation Bethlehem."

A year ago, the agency's "Rivers of Light" Christmas campaign floated LED-lit plastic balls filled with hopeful messages and small gifts down the rivers the guerrilla fighters use to get around. That effort, which won a Titanium Lion at this year's Cannes Lions festival, prompted 180 insurgents to leave the jungle. That included one senior commandant who defected with his whole group and brought along its entire arsenal, including guns, mortars and grenades, said Jose Miguel Sokoloff, Lowe & Partner's chief creative officer.

His agency Lowe SSP3 has been working with the Colombian government for several years to persuade fighters from groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, to "demobilize." This year, the agency learned from military intelligence reports that the guerrilla fighters were being shuffled around the region in an effort to prevent desertion. No longer in familiar terrain, even if they wanted to leave, it was harder to find their way to the nearest town to surrender.

"If they wanted to get out, they can't," Mr. Sokoloff said.

So this year's holiday campaign had to literally show them a path to a safe place, and "Operation Bethlehem" was born. After the army identified five strategic areas, powerful beacons were placed in key town plazas or other safe places. Starting Dec. 17, the beacons will illuminate the sky every night as guiding lights to give guerrillas a destination to head toward when they escape from their camps at night.

The agency brainstormed ways to illuminate the route through the jungle, and used all of them. On Dec. 7, a Colombian holiday when children light candles, military helicopters dropped thousands of lights along paths traveled by the insurgents. By dropping them from the sky, the lights would get tangled too high in the trees to be removed by guerrilla leaders. And since rivers are the jungle's highways, glow-in-the-dark billboards have been installed along the rivers with the message "Guerrilla, follow the light." Glow-in-the-dark stickers were attached to vehicles believed to be carrying food to the insurgents.

Fighters are often in touch with their families, especially around the holidays, so to spread the message, radio spots are running in the form of rewritten Christmas carols that end, "This Christmas, follow the light. Demobilize."

A TV and online spot shows "Operation Bethlehem," from the helicopters dropping lights into the jungle to local people switching on the beacon in their town. The spot concludes, "Follow the light that will guide you to your family and friends. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible."

The goal is for escaping insurgents not to have to walk more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to reach their beacon and place of safety, although that can take several days in rough jungle terrain, Mr. Sokoloff said.

The guerrilla forces are a shifting population, because they are always recruiting new members, but he estimates about 16,000 have defected since the demobilization effort began in 2009, when Colombia's current president, Juan Miguel Santos, was the minister of defense.

"Operation Bethlehem" is particularly appropriate now because the armed fighters are aware that their leaders are holding peace talks in Havana while they're in the jungle under attack. Or, as Mr. Sokoloff said, "If this is going to end anyway, don't be the last one dead."

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