WASHINGTON—Almost five years after President Alvaro Uribe declared war on them, Colombia’s narco-guerrillas have scored a victory against that country’s democracy. It has been revealed that a significant part of the political establishment had unsavory ties with the right-wing paramilitary umbrella group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo had to resign last week after her brother, a congressman, was arrested in connection with the scandal.

Why does all of this constitute a victory for the left-wing narco-terrorists? The revelations are reinforcing the Manichean view, held by influential organizations inside and outside of Colombia, that the country’s bloody conflict pits two equivalent evils against each other: a guerrilla force led astray by a few corrupt leaders who deal in drugs, and a fascist state organically tied to the drug business and desperate to preserve oligarchic rule. Although the recent revelations confirm that many public figures were in cahoots with the AUC, observers are missing an essential point: Almost all of the disclosures stem from the process set in motion by Uribe’s government in pressuring the AUC to put down its weapons, confess its crimes and lift the veil of secrecy that concealed its ties to the establishment.

The real story is that, for decades, the Colombian government failed to provide security in the face of two Marxist organizations that killed, maimed and kidnapped countless civilians. One of those groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), became an economic empire through narco-trafficking. In the 1990s, the AUC came into being in order to enhance and coordinate the efforts of cattle ranchers who were trying to organize their own protection against the FARC and other groups. As usually happens when the breakdown of law and order makes a mockery of the state’s claim to the monopoly of force, the paramilitary organization decided to obtain funding through drug trafficking and extortion. Thus, the FARC, mostly based in the South, and the AUC, mostly based along the Caribbean coast, became the competing enemies of Colombia’s civil society—under the impotent watch of the political institutions.

Since 2002, Uribe’s leadership mobilized civil society against those enemies. The FARC’s narco-guerrillas were pushed back to their bases deep in the interior. The AUC agreed to demobilize in exchange for reduced sentences and full confessions—the type of ethically controversial, but perhaps inevitable, process that other societies, from South Africa to El Salvador, have undergone in the name of reconciliation. Unfortunately, Uribe’s mistakes, especially his tendency to surround himself with several sympathizers of the AUC and his impatience with some left-wing human rights groups, now make it difficult to rescue an essential truth in the story of Colombia’s scandal known as “para-politics”—that it was Uribe’s success in pushing back the FARC and demobilizing the AUC that allowed the information about the latter’s links with prominent politicians to come out.

“The policy of Democratic Security,” Uribe told me, “is the one that confiscated the computer belonging to ‘Jorge 40’ and which constitutes part of the evidence on which the judicial investigations are based.” He was referring to Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, one of the demobilized AUC leaders.

Of course, there is no excuse for the fact that an important part of Colombia’s establishment engaged in the type of activities that the $4.7 billion in aid from the U.S. in recent years was supposed to combat. Nor is the fight against terrorism a justification for alternative forms of terrorism. But one must bear in mind that Colombia’s war is not a conflict between two evils, but one that pits a civil society anxious to survive and preserve its liberal democracy against competing forms of crime made worse by a dysfunctional state.

As someone who has often made the point that Marxist totalitarian uprisings in Latin America do not excuse military dictatorships or authoritarian democracies, I am aware of the implications of “para-politics.” But let’s be fair to Colombia’s civilian institutions. The cathartic process the country is experiencing now could never have been possible under General Videla (Argentina), General Pinochet (Chile) or Alberto Fujimori (Peru), to mention three autocrats who used the presence of Marxist terrorism as an excuse to remain in power. We don’t yet know whether Colombia’s establishment will learn the lesson. But so far the judicial system has taken bold steps without political interference. And that’s not a bad thing.