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Colombia's rebel turncoats

A government propaganda blitz urges FARC rebels to give up the fight. It seems to be working.

Rebel deserter Nelly Avila Moreno alias "Karina" speaks to reporters during a new conference at the DAS headquarters in Bogota, March 12, 2009. Moreno, who asked for forgiveness to her victims, turned herself to the Colombian authorities in May 2008. (John Vizcaino/Reuters)

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 — The earnest plea calling on Marxist guerrillas to give up the fight comes from an unlikely messenger.

The speaker is Elda Mosquera, a one-eyed female guerrilla commander, better known as Karina, who in the 1990s led a series of devastating guerrilla attacks. But last year, Karina turned herself in, and she now promotes the Colombian government’s demobilization program.

The propaganda blitz includes radio spots, posters and leaflets dropped from helicopters over rebel-infested areas. Guerrillas are told that by disarming they can begin new lives with the help of government housing, education and job-training.

Since President Alvaro Uribe was first elected in 2002, more than 12,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla group known as the FARC, have turned themselves in.

The number includes a record 3,027 FARC rebels who demobilized last year. Most were green recruits who quickly became fed up with life in the jungle. But some, like Karina, were high-ranking commanders with years of experience.

For the Colombia army, the demobilizations have produced a kind of virtuous circle. Deserters often provide key intelligence for army operations and as the military strikes more blows against the FARC, more guerrillas lose their will to fight.

One of the army’s greatest triumphs, last year’s bombardment of a guerrilla camp that killed the FARC spokesman and No. 3 leader Raul Reyes, was based on information provided by a rebel turncoat.

“For us it’s much better for these terrorists to turn in their weapons than to die on the battlefield,” said Gen. Miguel Perez, commander of the army’s rapid reaction force based in the southern town of La Macarena. “That’s because when rebels desert it demoralizes the remaining guerrillas.”

One of the latest FARC deserters is a 21-year-old explosives expert who goes by the nom de guerre Visages. In an interview inside a canvas tent surrounded by guards, Visages says he was drawn into the FARC by its rhetoric of Marxist revolution and social justice.

But later he realized that rebel commanders enjoyed all the perks — like vehicles and spending money — while the grunts did most of the fighting and dying. Visages decided to quit after a FARC commander forced his pregnant rebel girlfriend to get an abortion.

And as the army offensive intensifies, he says that more and more rebels want to desert.