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Colombian military's new weapon against rebels: Christmas trees

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
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Colombia launches 'Operation Christmas'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Operation Christmas" will decorate 10 trees in the jungle
  • The goal is to persuade rebels to demobilize by reminding them of holiday spirit
  • The military says 140 rebels have laid down their arms this holiday season

(CNN) -- This holiday season, the Colombian military is trying a unique angle to get guerrillas to lay down their arms: It is creating Christmas trees deep in the jungle in hopes the holiday spirit will tug the rebels back home.

The first tree of "Operation Christmas" was decorated in the jungle of southern Colombia, the military said.

Two units in two Blackhawk helicopters dropped in on a supply path that the guerrillas are known to use and picked a 25-meter (82-foot) tree to decorate with sparkling blue lights.

A commercial made by the military shows the soldiers, dressed in camouflage uniforms and face paint, wrapping 2,000 lights around the branches and trunk.

The tree was rigged with a motion sensor that will turn the lights on when someone walks by. A banner next to it says,

"If Christmas can come to the jungle, you too can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible."

Officials hope the gesture will be enough to lure rebels away from the jungle.

"For us, the most important month is December," Colombian military spokeswoman Marcela Duran said.

"Many make the final decision about demobilizing this month."

She says that traditionally, the holiday season sees a larger number of defections as rebels reflect on the positives and negatives of their situation. When they were recruited, many of the rebels did not know that it would mean being isolated from their families, she added.

The tactic is a shift from what has been an aggressive military campaign against the rebels this year.

In September, a military raid claimed the life of the No. 2 leader in a Marxist guerrilla group that has been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s. Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, also known as Jorge Briceno Suarez and by the nom de guerre Mono Jojoy, was the military leader for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly called the FARC.

It was one of a number of military successes for the government this year.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister, was known for his tough line against the rebels, but he also has a softer side, an analyst said.

During his time as defense minister, the government began using billboards and radio advertisements in areas where the rebels operate at an unprecedented level, said Adam Isacson, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Operation Christmas sounds a bit gimmicky, he said, but "rather than trying to kill all the rank-and-file guerrillas, it's better to try to convince them to leave."

FARC leaders tell their followers that they will be killed if they turn themselves in, but the advertisements and Christmas trees give another message, he said.

Despite the military successes this year, "the challenge is that their recruitment at the youngest levels is very easy," Isacson said.

The tree decorating is probably aimed at those young recruits.

In all, 10 jungle trees throughout the country will be decorated as part of Operation Christmas.

This year, 2,411 guerrillas have demobilized, including 140 during this holiday season, the military said.

In 2009, a total of 2,638 rebels laid down their arms.

 
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