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Recruiting rebels

The Colombian government tries to break apart guerrilla groups by convincing members to switch sides.

Pedro Pablo Montoya, rebel of the FARC known as "Rojas," at a news conference at a military base in Pereira March 8, 2008. Montoya killed his boss, a top FARC commander know as Ivan Rios. (John Vizcaino/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — By executing a top guerrilla commander, hacking off his right hand as proof of the macabre deed, then turning himself in to the Colombian Army, rebel bodyguard Pedro Montoya figured he’d be hailed as a hero.

After all, the man he killed, Ivan Rios, was part of the ruling secretariat of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, known as the FARC. Rios was such a big fish that the Colombian government had offered about $2 million for information leading to his capture.

But rather than receiving amnesty and a fat check, Montoya sits in a dank Bogota prison cell under investigation for murder, kidnapping and other crimes. More than a year after killing Rios, he claims that he hasn’t gotten his hands on one peso of the reward money and says his shabby treatment will discourage other fighters from breaking with their rebel groups.

“Who will want to turn himself in only to rot in jail?” Montoya said in an interview at the sprawling La Picota prison, which sits in a south Bogota slum.

The Montoya controversy is one of several recent high-profile incidents that call into question the Colombian government’s handling of Marxist guerrillas who have given up the cause and switched sides.

Montoya claims he's been betrayed. But his protests come at a time when many critics are slamming the government for making what they say are too many concessions to guerrilla turncoats.

Then there is the controversial matter of offering cash rewards for turning in guerrilla leaders and the unstated — but implicit — message that these chieftains are wanted dead or alive. Some analysts believe the policy will lead to Old West-style vendettas or — as in the case of Pedro Montoya — mafia-style hit jobs.

"It's a perverse logic that promotes more criminal behavior," said Olga Lucia Gomez, who heads a Bogota foundation that counsels the relatives of FARC-held hostages.

Others contend that the government's strategy is paying off.

The FARC, a Marxist rebel army that has been fighting against the government since the mid-1960s, has suffered a series of defeats amid a five-year-long Colombian Army offensive. One of the government’s most effective weapons has been a campaign to convince guerrillas to desert and turn over information in exchange for cash and, in some cases, legal amnesty.

Last year, more than 3,000 rebels deserted.