It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but the killing of FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] leader Alfonso Cano is another milestone in Colombia’s increasingly successful battle against what was once of the most powerful guerrilla groups in the world. It is hard to believe now, but as recently as ten years ago, FARC controlled an area larger than Switzerland and was on the verge of taking over the entire country. Colombia was widely written off as a failed narco-state. Now FARC has been marginalized. Colombia’s major cities are safe–as I saw for myself recently on my second trip there–and, while FARC can still ambush security personnel in the remote jungles, the existential threat to one of Latin America’s oldest and most durable democracies has been lifted.
What happened? As I argued in this Weekly Standard article in 2009, Colombia was saved by two developments: First the passage of Plan Colombia in 2000, a giant American aid package; second, and more importantly, the election in 2002 of Alvaro Uribe as president. Uribe turned out to be one of the most successful world leaders of the 21st century–or of the previous century. He saved his country from the FARC by implementing a full-spectrum counterinsurgency plan similar to those implemented by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. His success against FARC also allowed him to get control of, and disband, the right-wing militias which had sprung up in response to the guerrilla threat–a development similar to the way American success against al-Qaeda in Iraq made it possible to beat back the Sadrist militia. Now his success is being continued and extended by his former defense minister and successor, President Juan Manuel Santos.
Thankfully, President Obama finally endorsed the package of a long-overdue Free Trade Agreement with Colombia that rewards that country’s success and draws it even closer to the U.S. It would be good, however, if there were more general recognition that Colombia is one of the closest and most reliable American allies in the world–a country that has stood by us for many decades (Colombian troops fought alongside Americans in the Korean War) and that in the future promises to be a major trade partner.
It is high time to dispel outdated images of terrorism and drug trafficking, because, although both terrorism and drug trafficking remain issues, they no longer define Colombia as they once did. It is a country that is safe to travel to and do business with–and a country that can be an important American partner in dealing with threats such as Hugo Chavez and Mexican narco-traffickers. Indeed, Mexico would do well to import Colombian advisers to help its embattled security forces get control of their powerful narco-gangs.