VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia Not long after two top commanders of Latin America's last major rebel army were killed one in a raid, the other by a turncoat bodyguard Diego Canizares decided to call it quits.
The 39-year-old veteran guerrilla made indirect contact with the Colombian army. Then he strapped on his 9mm Taurus pistol and portable radio, slipped 10 anti-personnel mines into a canvas sack and walked off as if going to work.
Instead, he met up with a waiting army patrol becoming one of more than 1,450 fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to desert this year, according to the government's count.
Colombia's U.S.-trained and advised armed forces are squeezing the leftist rebel group as never before, bearing down on a half-dozen guerrilla concentrations after decimating several of the more than 50 rebel fronts last year.
Data obtained by The Associated Press from Colombia's armed forces and interviews with deserters show the rebels have been seriously weakened, so much so that many Colombians believe the endgame may be near. The 44-year-old insurgency has long filled its ranks with rural peasants resentful of government neglect, but is now widely despised for its embrace of kidnapping and drug trafficking.
John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee in the U.S. presidential race who arrived Tuesday for an overnight visit, has said one of his reasons for coming here is to highlight Colombia's military success.
"If it keeps up like this, in two years the guerrillas will disappear completely," said Canizares, a 16-year FARC veteran who gave up in March after the military doggedly pursued him and the 50 troops under his command. He was barely sleeping, sometimes going three to four days without a decent meal.
"More than one of us came to see that this was no life," said Canizares, who was second-in-command of plainclothes militias of the rebels' 39th Front, which operates in Colombia's broad eastern plains.
But longtime FARC watchers are reluctant to proclaim the rebellion over. The guerrillas have hunkered down in Colombia's forbidding jungles and mountains, planting more land mines in hopes of outlasting President Alvaro Uribe, who has made defeating the FARC the cornerstone of his administration. His second term ends in 2010 and he is constitutionally barred from running again.
"Those who are announcing that the FARC is defeated, that it's done for, are mistaken," said Carlos Lozano, editor of the Communist Party weekly Voz and a longtime mediator with the rebels. "The FARC remains a big guerrilla force spread across the nation with the capacity still to destabilize."
Nevertheless, the military now appears to have the upper hand. For the first time, more Colombian guerrillas deserted last year than died in combat, said Gen. Freddy Padilla, the armed forces chief. By official count, 2,480 rebels gave up, compared to 1,893 killed in action.
The FARC is now down to about 9,000 fighters, the government says, half its strength of a decade ago when it regularly overran army outposts. Padilla said 30 of the rebels who surrendered in the past year had more than 20 years each in the FARC.
"The FARC subsists at the moment because it still has money from drug-trafficking and also because of (its) hostages," Padilla said in an interview. "If the hostages didn't exist, nobody would be interested in the FARC."
Many of the die-hard combatants who accept amnesty offers in this provincial capital where Colombia's eastern plains meet the Andes mountains have an added incentive for surrendering: A $100 million government fund provides cash rewards to those who betray their commanders, with more than $5 million being paid out to date.
The fast-talking Canizares wasn't eligible he didn't turn anyone in but himself. He said he'd use a modest government stipend about $300 a month to study to be an auto mechanic.
Until the United States helped overhaul Colombia's military with more than a half-billion dollars in annual aid, soldiers barely penetrated the jungles in which the FARC moves so deftly. An army unit would take casualties and retreat.
"Now it enters an area and stays for a year or two," Canizares said. "If we fire off a few shots at the army, in 25 minutes it has four or five planes bombing and strafing the area."
As recently as three years ago, rebel deserters say, air force bombs rarely hit their marks. Now they are lethally accurate. In addition to U.S.-made, Gatling gun-equipped Blackhawk helicopters, Colombia recently acquired 25 new Brazilian-made Super Tucanos turboprop attack planes fitted with U.S. avionics and "smart bombs."
Resupplied by air, commandos now spend weeks at a time on patrol, and U.S. spy satellites and planes that intercept radio traffic have strangled the FARC's ability to communicate and move in large numbers.
A U.S. military analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, says the rebels are doing little more than surviving.
They have lost key leaders in recent months: their foreign minister, Raul Reyes, was killed in a March 1 raid on his camp just inside Ecuador. Finance chief Ivan Rios' severed hand was delivered by the reward-seeking bodyguard who killed him, and rebel patriarch Manuel Marulanda died of a heart attack on March 26 at age 78.
But even senior government officials aren't predicting the rebel army's imminent demise.
The FARC still holds an estimated 700 hostages as bargaining chips, including three U.S. military contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt. And it is fearful of disarming, given that when its movement tried to enter politics in the 1980s, far-right death squads killed some 4,000 activists.
As the FARC hunkers down, rebels are increasingly inflicting casualties with land mines and sniper attacks. Nearly half of the 471 soldiers and police it killed last year were land mine victims, the military says.
The FARC's biggest units and top commanders, meanwhile, are believed to be hiding out in barely accessible mountains and jungles in southern and eastern Colombia from which it is very hard to dislodge them, the U.S. military analyst said.
Meanwhile, the Colombian military's onslaught has cut FARC income from the cocaine trade to an estimated $200 million-$300 million a year about half what it earned a decade ago, according to Bruce Bagley, a drug war expert at the University of Miami in Florida.
Canizares says his disillusionment began three years ago when a new front commander, alias "Rodrigo," alienated the locals by shortchanging coca farmers and enriching himself with skimmed cocaine profits.Part of Canizares' job was overseeing the delivery of 800 kilos of cocaine collected as a tax on growers to Venezuela every few months. Each shipment earned the FARC about $3 million. Now that Canizares' rebel front is wiped out, there's no one to collect from growers.
Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.