Operation Christmas: How Christmas Trees and Soccer Balls Have Worked to Bring Greater Peace in Colombia

Operation Christmas Message

Over 200,000 people have been killed during an ongoing conflict in Colombia that pits the government, paramilitary groups and crime organizations against left-wing groups as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) and ELN (The National Liberation Army). For over fifty years, guerillas hiding deep in the jungle have been playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game, and the government has tried everything to bring them out of the jungles and send them home to their families.

They have even tried an advertising campaign, the likes of which you might see in a mall or on YouTube, to market a company or its products. In this case, the campaign has been powerfully effective.

The goal has been to get FARC and ELN guerrillas to demobilize, and thus weaken the guerrilla bands. The appeal has been to their hearts. And what better way to appeal to the hearts of Colombians is through Christmas and soccer. As explained in this December 11, 2016 60 Minutes report, the Colombian military hired a creative ad executive named Jose Miguel Sokoloff in 2006 to create a campaign that would convince members of FARC to go home.

On December 10, 2010, the military and Sokkoloff launched an advertising campaign called “Operation Christmas,” in which 9 very tall trees were decorated with lights that would only turn on if the motion-detection sensor noticed movement in that area. So if a FARC guerilla walked by one of those designated trees, it would light up like the proverbial Christmas Tree. At the same time, another light would shine on a sign that read:

If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.

As Sokoloff explained in 60 Minutes, “What we did was try to make coming back home for Christmas an important thing. And we knew that if we put up these Christmas trees with that sign up there, we would touch the hearts of the guerrillas, ‘cause my heart was touched. And they went and they did it.”

The result of that campaign was that over 300 guerillas, about 5% of the total, left the jungle and surrendered.

The following year, the Colombian military staged “Operation Rivers of Light,” another campaign to reach further into the jungle by floating plastic balls that contained messages and gifts to the guerillas. They also lit up with soft purple light, to send another powerful message of peace and beauty into the heart of the jungle. Some 7,000 of those balls resulted in the demobilization of another 180 guerillas.

Another campaign was also launched in 2011, in conjunction with the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup, which happened to be hosted by Colombia from July 29 to August 20. As Sokoloff said, football moves this country. Football is our passion.” So during this campaign, soldiers had thousands of soccer balls signed by players and celebrities and fans. Theses balls – all with a sticker saying “Demobilize. Let’s play again” – were thrown from helicopters into the jungle, resulting in another wave of guerillas leaving the jungle.

Sokoloff claims that over eight years of this campaign, 18,000 guerillas have come home, and got FARC to the bargaining table.

Still FARC and ELN fight for survival in the jungles, soldiers and guerillas die. But still negotiations continue as the government and FARC look to find peace.

Perhaps it will be quiet today in Colombia, for it is Christmas, and family calls.