VILLARRICA, COLOMBIA — Life was good for "Ernesto" when he joined Colombia's largest rebel group at age 14. He loved the leftist fighters' swagger, the perfumed rebel groupies and the stolen SUVs he and his buddies drove unchallenged over the roads of this cattle- and coffee-growing zone.
But eight years later, Ernesto's life as a foot soldier in the 25th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had lost its charm. Gone were the status and the free-spending ways, a lifestyle financed by kidnappings and extortions here in the west-central state of Tolima.
In their place came constant harassment from the Colombian army, which deployed 1,200 additional soldiers here in May, 10 times the existing garrison. Hunger became a constant, and the peasants who once were supporters began to ignore him and collaborate with the army.
"The army never let up. Wherever you slept, you'd better be gone early the next day because soldiers would be there soon," said Ernesto, 22, who gave an alias for security concerns. "We were really suffering."
In November, Ernesto made his separate peace, enlisting in a government demobilization program that promises education and housing in exchange for disarmament.
The surrender of Ernesto and 2,900 other fighters and urban supporters didn't make headlines like those generated by the Colombian military's more dramatic successes last year: the killing in March of the FARC's second in command, Raul Reyes, and the rescue in July of three U.S. subcontractors and onetime presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
But military officials say the 20% increase in desertions last year from the 2007 level is equally compelling evidence of their increasing battlefield dominance over the FARC, which the military has been fighting for more than 40 years.
That success, substantially underwritten by U.S. taxpayers through the Plan Colombia aid program, should not be confused with victory. The FARC has demonstrated its resilience time and again -- and, if Ernesto is to be believed, is now just waiting out President Alvaro Uribe's term in hopes it will have an easier time under his successor.
But what is clear is that added pressure from Colombia's military last year caused the rebels to lose control of significant chunks of geography, including this crucial crossroads zone connecting rebel forces in the jungle plains to the east with FARC drug-trafficking operations on the Pacific coast.
"This year, the army took the secure center of the country, consisting of the big cities, and pushed out the internal limits of what they control, closer to Colombia's true geographic frontiers," said an American government official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. He spoke anonymously because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
'Presence' is down
In an interview late last month at a police graduation ceremony in the Tolima town of El Espinal, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the FARC "has a presence" in 188 of the 1,099 counties, down from 514 a couple of years ago. "That to me was the most important of all our accomplishments," he said.
Colombian and U.S. military experts say the strategy is producing a cycle of dividends: Desertions such as Ernesto's lead to better intelligence, which leads to more battlefield success and a weaker enemy.
Locally, the climax of the strategy came last month when the Colombian army cornered and killed Ernesto's former commander, 25th Front leader Englio Gaona Ospina, alias Bertil, as he hid on a jungle cliffside a few miles north of here.
Although the members of his eight-man security detail had already given up or been captured, Bertil was defiant to the end: When soldiers demanded that he surrender, he threw a hand grenade at them.
In the end, Bertil was undone by his own men. Intelligence provided by demobilized FARC members was crucial in bringing down the rebel leader, Colombian army officials said.
"The front is done. It's dismantled. Bertil was with the FARC for 22 years. It's a big loss," Ernesto said at a safe house in the state capital, Ibague, that he shares with four other recently demobilized rebels from his unit. The slight but powerfully built former squad leader spoke with a calm demeanor and fiercely flashing eyes. "It's gone from 300 fighters when I joined to less than 50."
In Villarrica, the tide turned with the arrival in May of the additional soldiers from the Ibague-based 6th Army Brigade, including a 120-member mobile brigade unit modeled after U.S. Special Forces teams. The army launched the offensive with one objective: to wipe out the 25th Front and Bertil.
The army built a base in a pasture just north of this town's central plaza, bringing security and generating goodwill among residents long accustomed to violence.