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A reporter accompanies a Colombian army mission and observes why winning the war remains so difficult.
Editor's note: GlobalPost's correspondent John Otis had a rare opportunity to embed with the Colombian army during a mission against the FARC. This two-part series details his time in the battle zone and the rise in rebel deserters.
LA MACARENA, Colombia — Accompanying frontline Colombian soldiers is not something I would have tried when I first arrived here 12 years ago. At the time, the army was getting chewed up by Marxist rebels who overran military bases and kidnapped hundreds of troops. Back then, it would have been safer to embed with the guerrillas.
But thanks to improved intelligence, joint operations involving the army, air force and marines, and billions in aid from the United States, the Colombian military has scored some impressive victories. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest rebel army known as the FARC, have been reduced from 18,000 to about 9,000 fighters.
Despite the good news, the Colombian army can be gun shy around reporters. It took me more than a year of lobbying to arrange for a three-day embed that included just three hours in the actual battle zone. Yet that was enough time see why winning the war remains an elusive goal for the Colombian army.
8 a.m.: A military plane deposits me in the southern town of La Macarena, home to the FUDRA, the Colombian army’s rapid reaction force. Over coffee, FUDRA commander Gen. Miguel Perez shows me a homemade rebel land mine built from plastic PVC tubing. His troops are spending so much time in the jungle against a weakened FARC that most army casualties are now the result of land mines or tropical illnesses, like malaria and the flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis.
10 a.m.: Perez sends me down the road a few miles to the FUDRA training camp. I recognize the spot, which used to be a FARC bivouac. I spent a long afternoon here in 2001 interviewing guerrillas as they slaughtered a cow to prepare lunch. Soldiers now use the bunkhouses, kitchens and clothes-washing facilities built by the enemy. “We kicked them out of a place where the rebels felt like kings,” said Pvt. Jose Villalba, an eight-year army veteran. “That’s why we feel we’re winning the war. The FARC thought they were untouchable.”
Noon: Villalba is a member of Puma Company, a group of elite commandos who at the start of tomorrow’s raid will leap out of helicopters and rappel down ropes. Perez orders me to learn how to rappel in case there’s no room on the ground to land a chopper. After climbing up a 75-foot-tall tree, the commandos practice by falling backward off a wooden platform and sliding down a rope. I’m scared but before I can wuss out, I’m clipped into a harness and handed a Kevlar helmet and a pair of leather gloves. With one hand forward and one behind my back, I grip the cord as if it were a tow rope on a ski hill. After taking the plunge, my gloved hands serve as brakes as I slide down the rope. I land safely on a stack of sand bags but lose style points for splaying my legs. Press them together, I’m told, or when it's time to do this for real I might get snagged on tree branches.
8 p.m.: In the FUDRA war room, Perez explains the joint military operation to two dozen officers. The target is a FARC camp occupied by bodyguards of a rebel commander known as Mono Jojoy, who heads the FARC’s Eastern Bloc. A guerrilla deserter provided the camp location and the Colombian Air Force confirmed the information. In a pre-dawn blitz, Super Tucano aircraft will pound the area with bombs, Perez says. Then Puma Company troops wearing night-vision goggles will be airlifted to the spot to pursue any rebel survivors. All the while, Black Hawk helicopters and an AC-47 gunship will circle overhead providing cover. H-Hour is 5:40 a.m.