Region(s): South America
Issue(s): Safety
Author: Marialejandra Urbina, Jane Dorsett, Juan Pablo Garcia and Mihir Warty Sponsoring organization: Government Organization(s): Colombian Ministry of Defense Programme of Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilised
Agency: Lowe-SSP3 Contact: Juan Pablo García juan.garcia@lowe-ssp3.com

Campaign Info

Scope of Good Practice

This entry is about Colombia’s 60 year struggle against the world’s oldest guerrilla group, The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), who commit a terrorist act on average once every three days.

For seven years, the campaigns, along with the Colombian Ministry of Defense, invited those guerrillas to demobilize and rejoin society. These campaigns had historically centered on communicating government messages via mainstream programming, such as major football matches. However, the guerrillas increasingly eschew conventional media and are becoming more remote.

Operation Christmas (2010), Operation Rivers of Light (2011) and Operation Bethlehem (2012) were developed as new ways of reaching guerrillas. Consequently, more than 700 demobilized.

The Problem Addressed by the Campaign

The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) have caused more than 40,000 deaths and 3,000 kidnappings. They supply 50% of the world’s cocaine. Whilst FARC numbers have fallen during 2002-10, reducing to a hard-core group of around 8,000, the demobilizations have become more difficult to achieve and have plateaued. Remaining guerrillas tend to be long-standing members and occupy higher ranks. FARC have also been moving to more isolated areas and reducing their internal communications. By 2010, there was a clear need to reinvigorate the demobilization effort, and take that effort to this increasingly hard to reach audience.

Background Research

To determine the most effective way to re-energize the campaign, researchers went to the people who could advise them the best – the guerrillas themselves. Interviews and focus groups were conducted with over 200 recently demobilized ex-FARC members. Interviewees were of varying ages and drawn from across the country. 

Participants were asked about motivating factors, potential trigger-points and what forms of communication were accessible and credible for guerrillas. In addition, the data on demobilizations were examined to see if there were any patterns that could be exploited.

The data illustrated that demobilizations rose around the end of the calendar year. Delving deeper through the interviews, it was ascertained that rather than the weather or other factors, it was Christmas and its orientation around family and home that impacted guerrillas. The first major theme that emerged was that in this Christian society, Christmas is when many guerrillas think about quitting. They feel too far from their homes, families and children. The awareness of Christmas even being close, with carols and fireworks, makes them feel nostalgic.

The second key discovery was that FARC were retreating further into the jungles, beyond the reach of conventional media.


The insights identified – of the powerful resonance of Christmas for guerrillas and the increasingly remote locations taken up by FARC – led to a change in strategy. Rather than rely on communicating government messages via mass-media, the new creative strategy would utilize Christmas and its powerful sentiment to encourage FARC members to demobilize. It was also decided not to merely broadcast the message. Rather campaigners would go to the heart of FARC’s jungle strongholds in order to leave it.


During the respective Christmases of 2010-2012, three different approaches were taken to execute the creative strategy:

2010 - Operation Christmas: Military intelligence identified paths used by guerrillas. 2 professional anti-guerrilla contingents and 2 Black Hawk helicopters were to cover several tall trees with 2,000 Christmas lights along those paths. The lights turned on as guerrillas passed by, illuminating the message: "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. AT CHRISTMAS EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE."

2011 - Operation Rivers of Light: The Ministry of Defense invited friends and relatives of guerrillas to submit Christmas messages encouraging them to quit. 6,823 airtight, fluorescent capsules distributed the messages along the river routes that were increasingly being used by FARC.

2012 - Operation Bethlehem: Powerful beacon lights were placed in towns close to FARC bases. They illuminated the sky every night, giving the demobilizing guerrillas a direction to go to when they escape. A further 10,000 lights were dropped along key guerrilla routes. The message sent was “This Christmas follow the light, it will guide you to find your family and freedom. Demobilize. AT CHRISTMAS EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE.”


The increasing difficulties in reaching the guerrillas through conventional media such as radio and TV meant that alternatives had to be sought and used. The creative solutions turned jungle trees (Operation Christmas), rivers (Operation Rivers of Light), and even the sky (Operation Bethlehem) into media platforms.

However, from each campaign a TV commercial was produced of the operational activity, which was broadcast on prime time television during Christmas. Although media access amongst guerrillas is limited, TV remains the best way of connecting with the families of FARC members, who in turn would exert some pressure for their demobilization.

All the costs of each operation’s media plan, from the helicopters, boats and soldiers, through to the TV spots, were paid by the Colombian Ministry of Defense. 

In terms of reach, the key was to touch the hearts and minds of the FARC members themselves:

“Even if someone couldn’t see one of the trees, they had a power to became gossip amongst the guerrillas and for us this is more effective than everything.”

“Our commander wasn’t angry because of this message. It was different from the other propaganda we had seen... he was touched.”

“We definitely knew all of the strategies the government had done, but we never expected something like this.”

--Demobilized guerrillas, 2010-2012


A greater number of guerrilla demobilizations occurred than would have otherwise:

  • A total of 708 demobilizations took place between December-January across the three years – equivalent to 9% of the total FARC base. 

Year Vs. Demobilizations

2010: 339

2011: 194

2012: 175

Christmas was exploited more heavily than in previous years:

  • From 2007 to 2010, the average proportion of demobilizations taking place during Christmas time was 12.5%. 
  • From 2010 to 2012 that proportion increased to 14.4%.

Those guerrillas most vulnerable were demobilizing in greater numbers:

  • There was an increase of 11% in underage demobilizations.

More high ranking guerrillas were demobilized:

  • On average, a specialist (medic, radio operator, bomb-maker, nurse) demobilized each week.

On December 23rd, 2011, a historic demobilization was carried out in the Pacific region of Colombia. “Jefferson”, Chief of the Special Commandos of the 30th front of FARC, and one of the principal bomb-makers in the region, demobilized alongside 9 other guerrillas, including a minor. Just the ammunition and weaponry delivered by “Jefferson” represent 6% of the total armament handed over by the guerrillas since the demobilization program started in 2002.

Trust in the Army increased:

  • During 2002-2009, 86% of demobilizing guerrillas surrendered to the Army (the remainder approached either the Church or the Ombudsman).
  • During 2010 to 2012 that proportion increased to 92%.

Wider societal impact was achieved:

In addition to the direct effect on guerrillas, the campaigns also had a broader impact: to some degree they changed the context for the conflict, and improved international perceptions of the country.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The campaigns, and all of the accompanying press and social media coverage, have had a unique ‘humanizing’ effect which led to wider shifts in perception and behavior:

  1. The campaigns made guerrillas increasingly feel they are still part of society, even though they have chosen to stay on the fringes. They made them feel wanted and nostalgic;
  2. Crucially, the campaigns changed the military’s disposition to welcome the demobilized “enemy” by reminding them that these combatants are as human as they are after all; and,
  3. By touching the hearts of ordinary Colombians, the three operations helped smooth the reinsertion into society process by destroying some barriers that existed against accepting demobilized guerrillas in their workplaces or in their neighbourhoods. 

The over-riding message is that even in the most challenging of circumstances, communication can be a powerful tool of behavior change.

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