During Colombia’s 50-year civil conflict with armed guerrillas, the military has developed a powerful weapon: Christmas.
For the last four years, the Ministry of Defense, in conjunction with the Lowe SSP3 ad agency, has rolled out holiday campaigns to encourage rebels to defect at a time when they’re homesick and vulnerable.
It’s psychological warfare with a Hallmark twist.
In 2010, when the campaign was first launched, commandos put Christmas trees deep in the heart of guerrilla territory, complete with lights and a message: “If Christmas can make it into the jungle, you can make it home.”
Defections jumped 30 percent that year versus the previous December — although there’s no evidence that the uptick was directly related to the ploy.
“Our campaigns are based on the same basic insight — even if you are an armed guerrilla living in the jungle, you’re human, with dreams and desires,” said Juan Pablo García, who manages the Ministry of Defense account with Lowe SSP3. “And the holidays are a time when you’re most homesick and alone.”
These are unique times in Colombia. The government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been holding meetings in Havana for more than a year trying to hammer out a peace deal.
They’ve gotten through two of the six points on the peace agenda — land reform and the guerrillas’ political future — and are discussing ways the FARC can exit the drug-trafficking business.
President Juan Manuel Santos says similar negotiations could begin soon with the country’s second-largest group, the National Liberation Army.
Many in this once war-torn country are hopeful that a lasting peace might be in the works. Even so, the government is maintaining military pressure on the guerrillas and defections are still taking place.
From January through October, 1,064 guerrillas abandoned the ranks, according to government figures. Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón says more than 100 more have put down their arms since then and that defections are up 19 percent versus 2012.
Each year the Christmas campaign gets tweaked amid the shifting reality of the conflict.
In 2010 and 2011, when the majority of the guerrillas were thought to be in isolated rural areas, the military took the message to them.
The year after the Christmas tree stunt, Lowe SSP3 created a campaign called Rivers of Light in which family members put messages and small gifts in 7,000 LED-illuminated capsules sent floating down rivers the guerrillas were known to frequent.
That campaign won prestigious awards and the trade journal Ad Age named Lowe the 2013 International Ad Agency of the Year.
Last year, amid military intelligence reports that the FARC was moving troops around to keep them disoriented and to discourage them from defecting over the holidays, the agency created Operation Bethlehem — setting up searchlights in small villages.
“It was like a beacon so that they would know where to go to turn themselves in,” García explained.
This year’s campaign is equal parts Madison Avenue and guerrilla-marketing.
The FARC recently declared a 30-day unilateral ceasefire that runs through Jan. 15. That means that guerrilla soldiers will likely spend more time in populated areas, blending in with civilians and exposed to traditional media, the agency said.
Working with the mothers of recruits, the firm has blown up baby photos of rebel fighters and emblazoned them with the message: “Before you were a guerrilla you were my child — This Christmas I’ll wait for you at home.”
Those posters are being plastered on village walls and hung in the jungle. At the same time, the campaign includes television spots and a web page, www.eresmihijo.com, featuring real mothers.
“There’s nothing more powerful than a message from a mother,” García explained.
Francisco, who joined the FARC when he was 15 and spent almost two decades with the group before defecting earlier this year, said the holidays are particularly trying for guerrillas, many of whom are young.
“When you’re in the hills all you can think about is how much fun your family and friends might be having,” said Francisco, who asked for anonymity to minimize the threat of FARC reprisals since defection is a capital crime. “And you feel like you’re just up there waiting for a bomb to drop on you.”
While he was never directly exposed to any of the Lowe SSP3 campaigns, he met others who had seen him.
“Yes they’re effective,” he said of the ads. “When you’re in the mountains you get obsessed with your loved ones this time of the year. There’s a lot of psychological pressure.”
As he rolled out the latest ad campaign in the guerrilla stronghold of San Vicente de Caguán in central Colombia, Minister of Defense Pinzón said it was a simple call to reunite with family.
“Come home now, come home for this Christmas,” he told guerrillas who might be listening to the local media. “It makes no sense for you to be out there…Start your life now; there’s no need to wait for negotiations.”
Like all good ad agencies, García and his team run focus groups with ex-guerrillas to see what works. Through those meetings they know, for example, that the Christmas tree campaign “created a lot of buzz in the guerrilla rumor mill.”
But despite their cutting-edge delivery, García said the message is as traditional as the holiday.
“During Christmas anything is possible,” he said, echoing a line from the campaign. “It’s a time when everyone believes that change is truly possible. That’s not just for guerrillas. That’s for everyone.”