“It was an ending happier than any Hollywood director would dare to dream up,” commented The Economist. But this one was real: After years of trying and intensive planning, the Colombian government had freed 15 hostages, including three Americans, from longtime captivity among left-wing revolutionaries.

The rescue mission comes at a time when protectionists in the United States have been accusing Colombia of human-rights abuses because they don’t want Congress to approve a free-trade agreement. What will they say now that Colombians have risked their lives on behalf of American citizens?

They’ll probably ignore it–they’re experts at ignoring inconvenient truths. But the rest of us should take stock.

Most of the pubic attention has focused on Ingrid Betancourt, a onetime Colombian presidential candidate who was captured by a rebel group known as FARC in 2002. She grew up in France, and for six years that nation has followed her ordeal and the plight of her children.

The three Americans are Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell. They didn’t receive nearly as much attention, in part because they weren’t as well known. More than five years ago, their drug surveillance plane went down in the wilderness. They survived the crash, but FARC took them hostage–eager to use them as pawns in its war of terror against a democratic government.

Over the weekend, the Americans released a joint statement: “We want to offer our heartfelt thanks to the Government and the Armed Forces of Colombia. The operation they conducted to rescue us was one for the history books–something we will never forget for the rest of our lives. Colombia is a great nation with a great people, and the struggle they have endured with the FARC for more than 40 years is a shining testament to their great spirit: like the loved ones here with us now, they never gave up in the belief that human kindness and decency would ultimately prevail.”

The rescue effort is a triumph for human rights: Today, 15 people who had suffered in jungle prisons have their freedom.

The sad irony is that the protectionist groups would like us to believe that Colombia is bitterly hostile to human rights–and therefore shouldn’t be rewarded with passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Personally, I do not believe Congress should pass any free-trade agreement simply as a “thank-you” note to another country. These deals deserve approval only if they can stand on their own merits.

The good news is that the Colombia FTA does that – it makes economic common sense. The current one-way market access that favors Colombia will be changed, opening a market of nearly 50 million people to a wide-range of American-produced goods and services. Immediately, we would gain full access to Colombia for the sale of high-quality beef, wheat, cotton, soybeans; fruit such as apples, cherries, peaches, and pears; and processed food products like frozen French fries and cookies. Other barriers would fall as well with no agricultural products excluded from tariff reduction.

A decade ago, Colombia was a deeply troubled nation, torn by violence and rebellion. In 2000, however, President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress worked on a bipartisan basis to help the Colombians fight drug traffickers and revolutionaries, who were often the same people. That support, combined with the election of Alvaro Uribe as president in 2002, has made a huge difference: homicides, terrorist attacks, and kidnappings have dropped significantly.

So has violence against trade unionists–the ostensible concern of some of the more vocal opponents of the trade accord. Statistics vary, but the murder of trade unionists has fallen by at least 79 percent and possibly more. Today, trade unionists are actually less likely to be murdered than ordinary Colombian citizens, according to the New York Times.

So the truth is, the heroic hostage rescue is a success story within a success story. It’s time for Congress to approve the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Mary Boote serves as Executive Director of Truth About Trade & Technology.