Colombia Taps World Cup Fever to Urge Guerrilla Defections

Colombia’s government is using the success of the national soccer team to entice Marxist rebels out of their jungle hideouts to watch World Cup games in peace with the rest of the country.

“Guerrilla fighter, how can you miss the world’s biggest spectacle?” the Defense Ministry’s televised advertisements say. “Colombia is saving a seat for you so you can enjoy the world’s biggest football party in freedom.”

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, have been fighting the government since the 1960s, seeking a Cuban-style revolution in the Andean nation. The army has tracked down and killed the FARC’s top two commanders and dozens of its mid-ranking commanders since 2010, often using information from deserters, said Steven Dudley, a director at InSight Crime, a research group that studies organized crime in Latin America.

“There’s no question that it was vital in most if not all of these cases,” Dudley said in a phone interview from Washington. “The understanding of where these groups operate, where they move, what kind of communications are they using: all of this can be used when they’re trying to track down a major leader.”

Colombia’s team reached the tournament’s quarterfinals, their best-ever performance, before losing 2-1 today to hosts Brazil. President Juan Manuel Santos’s government gave public officials this afternoon off to watch the match.

Pamphlet Drops

The army uses radio broadcasts, as well as pamphlet drops over guerrilla-held areas and broadcasts by overflying helicopters, to encourage desertions. The Defense Ministry is encouraging Colombians to use social media to promote desertions during the tournament, with the Twitter hashtag #yoleguardoelpuesto, or “I’ll save the seat for you.”

Government data show 120 rebels have demobilized since the start of June, taking the total for the year to 639 people.

Army propaganda often includes testimony from former guerrillas in so-called “re-insertion” programs, where they are given eduction classes and support for their families after abandoning the rebel movements.

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