But few see the FARC regaining its lost ground or coming anywhere near achieving its goal of military victory and imposition of some form of communist state. Even former supporters now are increasingly calling for peace talks focusing on fighters' reintegration into society.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has denied allegations of bankrolling the FARC, recently called on the group to release all hostages and seek peace talks, without conditions.
"There's no doubt that the FARC has received big blows in the past four years, and this year has been the worst, especially from a public relations perspective," said Vargas. "It would be healthy for its leadership to show some practical sense and see that the most viable option would be a negotiated exit."
Uribe has been open to talks but without FARC preconditions. He long ago rejected earlier government strategies that ceded a Switzerland-sized swath of territory to FARC dominance. The failure of FARC leaders to negotiate seriously then cost them significant public support.
Now Uribe faces a rebel movement that is diminished in strength and struggling with internal divisions.
Some analysts describe a fissure in the FARC since the death this year of long-time leader Pedro Antonio Marin, known by aliases Manuel Marulanda and "Sureshot," who founded the group in 1964. FARC-watchers speculate that his successor, Alfonso Cano, a one-time anthropology student who lacks Marin's peasant pedigree, does not have the rank-and-file support of the legendary founder.
Defectors have described semiautonomous guerrilla bands operating with little direction from top-level commanders. Avila, the operative of the FARC's Front 47, said she had been out of touch with her commanders for more than two years.
Compounding the rebels' isolation is their fear of U.S.-supplied eavesdropping equipment, which has forced commanders to abandon radios, satellite phones and computer communications in favor of couriers who must sometimes travel long distances to deliver messages. That lack of communication was exploited in this week's rescue mission, in which rebels holding the hostages were duped into thinking the captives were being taken to see FARC chiefs.
The leadership's next step remains uncertain. A radio station that often broadcasts rebel views said this week that the group would be open to peace talks with the government. And the Anncol news agency, often seen as a barometer of the FARC's thinking, was quoted from its website by Agence France-Presse as calling for peace.
"Definitely the future of Colombia cannot be civil war," read the Anncol statement. "We call for common sense and to make room for peace."
But officials in Bogota are skeptical that real negotiations are possible anytime soon.
"The FARC is recalcitrant, we'll have to punish them a lot more," said Colombian Gen. Padilla. "They are not prepared to negotiate. Partly because the leadership is split and in disarray. Partly because the leadership doesn't yet see the reality of their difficulties, unlike the soldiers who are living the war every day and are increasingly deserting."
patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com email@example.com
Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.