Soldiers in camouflage string up blue Christmas lights in a tree in the Colombian jungle. Photo courtesy of the MullenLowe Group.
In December 2010, two Black Hawk helicopters carrying special operations soldiers from the Colombian military’s Rapid Deployment Force flew into the jungles of the Serranía de la Macarena, a sprawling national park south of Bogota. The soldiers departed from the aircraft, moving on foot through the night to a massive tree that stood over 75 feet tall. Working quickly, they installed 2,000 custom-built Christmas tree lights activated by motion sensors. The mission, code-named Operation Christmas, was to encourage Colombian rebels to demobilize, regain their freedom, and enter back into society.
Since 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the violent separatist group more commonly known as the FARC guerrillas, had waged war against the Colombian military. The FARC funded itself through kidnappings and extortion, illegal mining, and the drug trade. By 2010, about 6,000 FARC guerrillas remained isolated in the jungles. The Colombian government recruited international advertising agency MullenLowe Group to safely communicate with the guerrillas — using the Christmas spirit as a vehicle to peace.
“I have never lived one day of peace in my country,” said Jose Miguel Sokoloff, an advertising executive and the campaign director, in a 2014 TED Talk. “And if you look at the human cost of this war over 50 years, we have had more than 5.7 million displaced population. It’s one of the biggest displaced populations in the world, and this conflict has cost over 220,000 lives.”
The Christmas tree was one of 10 strategically placed in rebel-held areas. The targeted message helped spread awareness of how the Christmas holiday away from family and friends was a perfect time to abandon armed struggle.
“These trees helped us demobilize 331 guerrillas, roughly 5% of the guerrilla force at the time,” Sokoloff said. “These trees were lit up at night, and they had a sign beside them that said, ‘If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.’”
With the success of Operation Christmas, attempts to reach out to the guerrillas continued for several years, and the psychological tactics and ad campaigns evolved. Rivers are the highways of the jungle, and Sokoloff and the Colombian Ministry of Defense had learned that most of the recruiting for FARC guerrillas occurred around river villages. Sokoloff collected more than 6,000 messages, including phrases such as “Come home at Christmas,” from family members and friends of the guerrillas.
Along with the messages from loved ones, some small gifts were placed inside Christmas-themed floating balls marked with glowing LED lights, which then traveled down the rivers at night. The “Rivers of Light” campaign resulted in one defection every six hours.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.