Christmas Made Peace in Colombia Possible

Todd Potter, Staff Writer

 Operation Christmas, an ad campaign launched by the Colombian government in 2006, helped persuade the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels to surrender, which led to the end of the country’s 52-year civil war.

  In 2006, Colombia’s deputy minister of defense instructed Jose Miguel Sokoloff’s ad agency to create an ad campaign in hopes of demobilizing the RAFC.  This project led to dozens of campaigns in the following years.  

 As a part of the 2010 Christmas campaign, Black Hawk helicopters carried two of Sokoloff’s colleagues led by Colombian Special Forces into rebel territory.  They decorated nine 75-foot trees near rebel strongholds with Christmas lights that would turn on via a motion sensor, illuminating a banner that read “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize.  At Christmas, everything is possible.”

  The campaign emphasized that coming home for Christmas was important in hopes of touching the hearts of the soldiers, which would persuade soldiers to surrender.  

  The 2010 campaign helped demobilize 331 soldiers, roughly 5% of the guerilla.  The soldiers simply left the forest and gave up fighting.  

  Richard Ruan (11) stated in response to the campaign, “I think it is good that it reduced further conflict by appealing to a desire for rebels to return home.”

  In 2011, the team launched their second Christmas campaign, “Operation River of Lights,” in which they asked people in nearby villages to send in messages and gifts for the guerilla.  These presents were put into capsules that glowed in the dark and floated down the river.  Almost 7,000 capsules were sent down the river, with one capsule containing a message written by Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.   

  Marlon Escobar (11) said that this campaign was good because it broke down the “us-vs-them” mentality. He stated, “The river campaign was very unique.  I’ve never heard a story of messages and gifts being sent down a river to soldiers by the ‘enemy.’”

  Sokoloff and his team have produced dozens of campaigns. They illuminated the path out of the forest, threw soccer balls signed by players, celebrities, and fans with a sticker that said, “Demobilize. Let’s play again,” into the jungle, as well as broadcasting voices of ex-guerilla leaders and the voices of mothers whose children were a part of the RAFC above the jungle.  

  In 2013, Sokoloff found 27 mothers of guerilla fighters and they gave him photos of their children only they could recognize.  That Christmas, Sokoloff’s team hung flyers featuring those pictures throughout the jungle.  On the flyers, it said, “Before you were a guerrilla, you were my child. So come home because I will always be waiting for you at Christmastime.”  

  This campaign in particular led to 218 soldiers demobilizing and going back home for Christmas.  

  Over the course of eight years, over 18,000 soldiers demobilized, largely due to Sokoloff’s campaigns.   These ads helped bring FARC to the negotiation table in 2012.  During negotiations, guerilla leaders asked the government to stop airing Sokoloff’s commercials and soon they agreed to a ceasefire.

  On September 19th, 2016, the RAFC unanimously agreed to approve a peace deal with Colombia.  On November 30th, the Colombian government passed a revised peace accord through Congress. (The previous version had narrowly been rejected by voters on October 2nd.)  Operation Christmas led to this historic moment, ending the civil war which left a quarter million people dead, allowing Colombia to once again be a safe place for tourists to vacation.