Withering military pressure by President Álvaro Uribe’s government has forced Colombian’s largest leftist rebel group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), to dig itself even deeper into the Colombian countryside. In 2008, more than 3,000 rebels surrendered their weapons and accepted Uribe’s desertion package. The kidnapping rate has taken a nose dive and Colombia’s oldest rebel group has lost three senior commanders in the last year.

Last March’s cross-border raid a mile into Ecuador killed senior commander Raul Reyes. The elaborate attack was a joint effort of the Colombian military and police forces acting with the help of U.S. intelligence. The so-called War on Drugs, in addition to funding fumigation of coca fields, has fueled a Colombian military buildup. U.S. troops have trained and outfitted Colombian soldiers and U.S. eavesdroppers have helped Colombia all but shut down FARC communications, forcing the insurgents to resort to medieval methods of message relaying: runners. After Reyes’ camp was bombed by Colombian planes equipped with the latest U.S. targeting technology, killing him and eleven others, Colombian commandos recovered guerrilla laptops containing sensitive information that Uribe’s government says tied the rebels to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. The diplomatic nightmare that ensued ultimately boiled down but made it clear that the FARC was operating across porous borders. Months later, Chavez publicly called on the FARC to give up the fight. What he did privately isn’t known.

Top commander Manuel ‘Tirofijo’ Marulanda, a co-founder of the FARC dubbed the ‘oldest rebel in the world’, died a few weeks later. How he died remains unclear. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told Semana magazine in May _ when he leaked first news of the death _ that there were three military bombardments on Tirofijo’s camp around the time the FARC reported he had died of a heart attack. Santos also alleged that Mono Jojoy, the FARC’s field marshal, disrupted a plot to assassinate him from within his own security detail. This is not confirmed, but the government claims only 9,000 fighters remain entrenched in Colombia’s remote and not-so-remote regions. One of them killed a third senior commander, Iván Ríos, less than a week after Reyes’ death, presenting authorities with the rebel’s severed hand as proof. He’s now stewing in a Bogotá prison, his reward money frozen by prosecutors and likely to go to people he allegedly kidnapped while a guerrilla.

By offering an incentive package including room, board, stipend and assistance with reintegration into civilian life, the Ministry of Defense’s deserter program claims to have demobilized 49,000 combatants since 2002, which include both leftist rebels and far-right paramilitaries (though now deserting paramilitaries will no longer enjoy asylum). Last year the military announced there was $100 million in reward money available for rebel deserters, though compensation depends on what a rebel brings with him. Wilson Bueno Largo, nom de guerre ‘Isaza’, received nearly half a million dollars and asylum in France for delivering politician Oscar Tulio Lizcano in October. The rebel who provided information that led to Raul Reyes’ death is now living in the United States and is enjoying a more than $2 million reward.

The FARC was dealt another blow in July 2008 when Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and eleven soldiers and police captives were rescued in a daring operation. A rebel turncoat working closely with the Colombian military duped the captives’ guards into moving the prisoners to a rendezvous point. There, two helicopters with the turncoat and soldiers posing as humanitarian workers collected the prisoners and overpowered the guards once airborne. Their week of acting classes no doubt helped. The three U.S. contractors have chronicled their ordeal in “Out of Captivity”, currently number 5 on the NYTimes bestseller list, while Betancourt is incommunicado writing her own.

The Colombian government claims that kidnapping has fallen from 3,000 a year when Uribe took office to only a few hundred now. What is certain is that the FARC has lost or released unilaterally most of its high-value hostages. Why? Though they retain about 23 captives as bargaining chips, the FARC seem to be playing Uribe’s hard line game. Uribe’s is a personal vendetta against the FARC. His father was killed in 1983 by guerillas during a botched kidnapping attempt at the family ranch in Antioquia province. Despite accusations by respected international human rights groups that he encouraged far-right death squads, Uribe has benefited from almost universal contempt for the FARC by the middle and upper classes of Colombian society. More than $6 billion in U.S. aid since 2000 has indisputably reinforced the military, which in many regions has allegedly provided support for the death squads.

In a letter addressed to his army, penned in March 2008, FARC chief Manuel Marulanda acknowledged the setback losing three senior commanders and a wealth of privileged information represented. He said “it will take months and even years to reconstruct the documentation and political relations with international persons and organizations as they were functioning [before the loss of Reyes’ computers]”. Certainly Uribe’s military mobilization, financial incentives and U.S. assistance have weakened the FARC, promoting desertion and eliminating top members. But many analysts _ and even some held hostage for years by the FARC and recently freed _ believe Uribe ultimately can’t win without addressing the root causes of the conflict: inequality and the concentration of the most arable land in the hands of less than 5 percent of the population.

The handpicked successor of Manuel Marulanda as top FARC chief, Alfonso Cano, is a Bogotá-educated socialist. In a recent interview with the Spanish magazine Cambio 16 he called the movement healthy and committed to ending social inequality and Colombian dependence on the United States. Cano reaffirms the FARC’s recalcitrance and shows an unwillingness even to renounce kidnapping, a condition that would be essential for Europe to remove it from its list of foreign terrorist groups. The FARC derive 70% of their income from cocaine trafficking.

February 2008 saw six hostages unilaterally released, including former governor of Meta province Alan Jara who had been held for seven and a half years. Jara doesn’t buy arguments that the FARC are near defeat and insist that political negotiation is the way out of the conflict. He was hard on Uribe, saying the president did nothing for the hostages “leaving it to foreigners to make efforts to negotiate them free” and is as much interested as the FARC is in perpetuating the conflict.

The three rescued U.S. military contractors, who spent some of their 5 1/2 years in FARC captivity with Jara, think the rebels will need to be beaten down militarily first. The U.S. is committed to that line. But Uribe leaves office in August 2010, unless he tries to run for a third term, which would mean amending the constitution. And the intensity of the war on the FARC would then depend on his successor.