It might have seemed like a dark day for the United States' most important alliance in South America when Colombia's Constitutional Court struck down the military agreement allowing 800 U.S. troops and 600 contractors to operate out of seven Colombian bases. After all, military cooperation has been a central feature of the joint, decade-long mission to rebuild Colombia from a chaotic, near-failed narco-state to a functioning democracy, and Colombia's anti-American neighbors, particularly Venezuela, have long urged Colombia to eject the U.S. forces. However, when viewed in the context of long-term U.S.-Colombian relations, the ruling, negative though it may seem, is far from bad news. In fact, it is an important victory for both Colombia and the U.S.
The U.S. began its assistance to Colombia, which has included $6 billion over the last ten years and countless military "advisers," with a daunting three-step process in mind. Step one was to roll back the military power of the drug-fueled insurgencies. In the early 1990s, the Cali and Medellín cartels challenged the sovereignty of the state both on the ground, where security forces were corrupted or simply outgunned, and in the very halls of government. Waves of political assassinations enforced the cartels' hold on the increasingly hollow government, accelerating the country's decline as it lost the ability to enforce the law and offer basic services. This first step took a decade of work by U.S. and Colombian officials, much of which was consumed by constant corruption probes of the Colombian officials tasked with helping to hunt down the cartels.
As if this weren't enough, step two called for the U.S. to help Colombia re-establish national and local security forces that could return sovereignty and rule of law to the country, patches of which had become lawless havens for the notoriously brutal FARC guerrillas. At their height, the FARC took 3,000 hostages every year. Many of them were kidnapped purely for ransom, many for political reasons. The group also performed routine acts of terrorism. Like any native, grassroots insurgency, the FARC has been incredibly difficult to uproot. The process will look familiar to close observers of the war against the Taliban, with Colombia pursuing every option from political reconciliation to outright military assaults. No one expects the FARC to completely disappear anytime in the foreseeable future, and much of the jungle remains unsafe, but the insurgent threat is considerably more manageable than it once was.