Mothers Beg Their Guerilla Fighter Children to Come Home for Christmas

The killer guerrillas in Colombia miss their moms -- a chink in their rough-and-tough image that the government is exploiting. Juan B. Diaz/AP

Beneath their tough actions and grim faces, do guerrilla fighters love their mothers?

This Christmas, the Colombian government will find out. Mothers of mercenaries are being used to appeal to their killer sons and daughters to lay down their arms and return home in time for the holiday.

"I want you near me, not just your photograph near me," croons a female singer as a stream of somber-looking mothers hold up photographs of their long-gone children in a television ad. "I want to hug you and get you home."

Posters plastered on the walls around towns close to guerrilla camps cry out, "This Christmas, I'm waiting for you at home. Demobilize. Over Christmas, everything is possible."

The Christmas appeal is the fourth in a series of year-end campaigns by Colombia's Ministry of Defense to try to weaken the ranks of FARC, who took to violent means nearly 50 years ago to wrest land reforms from the rich elite that rules Colombia.

There is nothing very Christian about the terrorists' modus operandi. They kidnap government officials, journalists and civilians to pressure the government into meeting their demands and to finance their organization, which is also involved in the drug trade. They have also bombed public spaces.

"Christmas is the time of year when the most guerrillas tend to demobilize; it's when they miss home the most," said Juan Pablo Garcia, campaign executive at the advertising agency that dreamt up the campaign. "They may be guerrillas, but they are human beings too and we try to exploit that."

The first campaign, in 2010, involved 80-foot Christmas trees laden with colored lights erecting near guerrilla camps.

The following year, soldiers sent floating down rivers plastic spheres lit from the inside containing messages and small gifts from hundreds of Colombiansvas a means of penetrating the guerillas' well guarded strongholds.

In 2012, the military lit the paths from the jungle that led to towns with LED lights, glow-in-the-dark stickers, and light beams.

Last year's TV ads, aimed at regular Colombians to explain the anti-guerrilla campaign, featured Black Hawk helicopters flying over the lush jungle, soldiers in camouflage wearing night vision goggles trekking through the foliage, and military speedboats roaring through waterways.

This year, the strategy is different. After interviewing dozens of former guerrillas, the government and its advertising experts discovered that fighters are homesick for their mothers. The new campaign has substituted treks into the rebel heartland and shows of force with reminders of childhood and maternal bonds. The women in the ads are actual mothers of guerrilla fighters and the photographs they hold up to the cameras are those of their own sons and daughters.

In one photograph, a little girl grins shyly at the camera, two blonde, plastic dolls resting on her lap. In another, a young boy proudly holds up a school diploma in a classroom. A third shows a baby in a plastic bucket, enjoying a bath.

Radio stations repeatedly play the sad song featured in the TV ads in the hopes it will be heard by fighters deep in the jungle. Twitter messages to guerrillas are accompanied by the hashtag #eresmihijo, or, "You are my son".

"This is the soft arm, the hug, the sweet part" of the government's anti-guerrilla military strategy, said Iveth Aristizabal, the Colombian Ministry of Defense's communications consultant. And it is the cheapest, too: a commercial costs about $40,000 to make, she said, and much of the work has been given for free.

For years, the government has tried to talk guerrillas into quitting, sending soldiers to relay the message from loudspeakers aboard helicopters and enlisting sporting celebrities to speak at demobilization rallies. And for years, the insurgency has fought back. The guerrillas have begun confiscating radios and forcing guerrillas to operate further and further away from their hometowns, said Aristizabal.

Yet, more than 54,000 fighters defected between 2003 and mid-2012, including from the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC, according to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.The United States government has placed FARC in its list of terrorist organizations.

Colombian guerrillas who decide to lay down their arms are warmly welcomed back into society – so long as they have not committed crimes against humanity.

First, a cash reward is offered for intelligence on the guerillas still at large. Then they are interned at a "home for peace," a halfway house where they are given food, money for clothes and legal support for three months. Finally, they move on to the reintegration part of the process, which can last as long as six years and includes psychological support, schooling and job placement.

Of those fighters who have defected, according to El Tiempo, only 30,736 remain in the system. Many others have abandoned the reintegration process or lost their benefits after committing a crime. The Ministry of Defense admits that, while the number of demobilized guerrillas increased by 15 percent in 2013 compared with the previous year, the number to abandon the guerrilla cause decreased each year between 2009 and 2012.

Still, "they have to keep the message out that if you demobilize, you won't be tortured or killed," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization. Peace talks between the FARC and the government currently taking place in Havana, Cuba that involve disarmament, a political voice for former rebels, land reforms, and restitution to victims of the conflict are making more progress than previous efforts, Isacson said.

"Colombia is tired of the conflict," said Aristizabal. "We are all interested in reaching the peace that we all want." And for many, that first means coming home.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts