Steven Ambrus

Stories by Steven Ambrus

  • Human Intelligence Key to Colombia's Raid on FARC

    The rescue of 15 military and civilian hostages by Colombia's Army on July 2 was more stealth and bewilderment than shock and awe. Instead of hitting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with air raids, the Army infiltrated the group and tricked its fighters into handing over prisoners to government forces. It was a strategy low on brute force and high on inside knowledge of the enemy. As such, it represents not only a major departure for Colombia but perhaps the best new model for combating terror groups worldwide.Such an operation was unthinkable a decade ago, when Colombia's army seemed to be stalemated against the FARC, which then boasted 20,000 guerrillas and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars annually from drug smuggling and kidnappings. But a big increase in its military budget allowed Colombia to double the size of its armed forces to 500,000 and train more men in special operations. Then, after 9/11, Washington permitted U.S.-supplied aircraft and...
  • The Drug Lord's Dame

    For more than a decade Virginia Vallejo held her tongue about her torrid love affair with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. But when the former newscaster finally broke her silence last month, her sensational accusations became the talk of the nation. In an interview with the Miami Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald, the 56-year-old ex-model declared that Escobar plotted the 1989 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán with Alberto Santofimio, a former cabinet minister and senator who at the time was contemplating his own run for Colombia's top job. Currently on trial in Bogotá for conspiring to murder Galán, Santofimio allegedly urged Escobar on three occasions in the mid-'80s to "neutralize" the popular politician, according to Vallejo. "Santofimio envisioned not only the killing of Galán but also the transformation of the country into a narco-state," said Vallejo. "Everything was aimed at making Santofimio president ... and ensuring that his successor...
  • Seeing the Bright Side

    To get a sense of how the rest of the world judges America's prospects, NEWSWEEK spoke to several of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders, a group of several hundred decision makers in fields ranging from politics to technology, business to entertainment. Our ad hoc group included the U.S.-educated president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili; Indian IT Minister Dayanidhi Maran; Colombia's former minister of Cul-ture María Consuelo Araújo;Jack Ma, CEO of China's largest e-commerce company, Alibaba.com; Nokia's chief technology officer Tero Ojanpera; Die Welt editor Jan-Eric Peters, and Harvard history professor and author of "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire" Niall Ferguson, a Brit. Excerpts: ...
  • Seeing the Bright Side

    To get a sense of how the rest of the world judges America's prospects, NEWSWEEK spoke to several of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders, a group of several hundred decision makers in fields ranging from politics to technology, business to entertainment. Our ad hoc group included the U.S.-educated president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili; Indian IT Minister Dayanidhi Maran; Colombia's former minister of Culture María Consuelo Araújo;Jack Ma, the CEO of China's largest e-commerce company, Alibaba.com; Nokia's chief technology officer Tero Ojanpera; Die Welt editor Jan-Eric Peters, and Harvard history professor and author of "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire" Niall Ferguson, a Brit. Excerpts: ...
  • GETTING OFF TOO EASY

    The dusty hills above the Colombian city of Medellin once crackled with the staccato bursts of automatic-weapons fire. Yuber Anderson remembers those days when he fought in the ranks of a right-wing paramilitary group called Cacique Nutibara, which he joined in his teens. In the fall of 2003 he and his comrades in arms heeded President Alvaro Uribe's call to hand in their weapons, and Anderson then spent his days in a neighborhood community center studying auto mechanics. His bloodshot eyes and tattooed forearms still give him the air of a hooligan. But he voices optimism about his country's future. "We want to show everyone that when we surrendered our weapons, we did so with all our hearts," says the 20-year-old.Others aren't convinced. Several of the 800 fighters who came in from the cold along with Anderson are finishing high school, training for careers and under- going therapy at great expense to Medellin's municipal government. But their neighbors in the slums of the city say...
  • Distant Neighbors

    HUGO CHAVEZ AND ALVARO URIBE ARE FEUDING. BUT THEIR TRADE TIES SHOULD HASTEN A RECONCILIATION
  • BLACKLIST TO THE A LIST

    The declassified defense Department intelligence report, dated September 1991, reads like a Who's Who of Colombia's cocaine trade. The list includes the Medellin cartel's kingpin, Pablo Escobar, and more than 100 other thugs, assassins, traffickers and shady lawyers in his alleged employ. Then there's entry 82: "Alvaro Uribe Velez--a Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels. Uribe was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the U.S.... Uribe has worked for the Medellin cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria." Escobar died in a 1993 police raid. Two years ago this week, Uribe became president of Colombia.Washington loves him. In a two-page written statement, the Colombian president's office denied that Uribe had links of any kind to a U.S. business, as described in the 1991 report. (The list was obtained by the National Security Archive, an independent U.S. research group.)...
  • OFF THE HOOK?

    The swarthy, 65-year-old warlord cut an odd figure in his dark business suit, white dress shirt and red striped tie. And when it was time for Ramon Isaza to address a session of the Colombian Congress last week, the paramilitary supremo asked a lawmaker to deliver his prepared remarks. But the significance of the occasion was in no way diminished: Isaza, who is wanted for drug trafficking in Colombia, and two fellow paramilitary leaders, accused of murder in their native land, had been allowed to visit the capital city of Bogota on a 48-hour safe-conduct pass issued by the government of President Alvaro Uribe. Only a week prior to their appearance--where they asked for immunity from prosecution and extradition in exchange for pacifying their militias--a force of 50 U.S.-trained anti-narcotics policemen had raided a cocaine lab allegedly belonging to Isaza and seized 850 kilos of the drug. But that in no way dampened the enthusiasm of some pro-Uribe lawmakers over the paramilitary...
  • Periscope

    IRAQ: Hostilities LaunchedHas the war in Iraq already started? It sure looks that way to U.S. pilots in the region. The Pentagon makes no secret of the fact that since the mid-1990s, the U.S. military has been bombing targets in southern Iraq. But the number of sorties is rising--all with the aim of weakening Iraq before H-hour.According to a senior Defense official, on Nov. 18 there were more than 50 incidents of U.S. pilots' spotting Iraqi fire on the horizon in the no-flight zone. Under the rules of engagement, the pilots leave the area unless directly fired upon, then return for retaliatory strikes elsewhere--one for each incident. "The Iraqi 'AAA' [anti-aircraft fire] is like a sine wave in the last 30 days, up and down for no clear reason," says the official. Some days bring no action. "The aircraft aren't up there looking for a fight," says Adm. Barry M. Costello. "It's mostly recon [reconnaissance]."Aboard the carrier USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf, Marine Lt. Col....
  • Risky Business

    In a remote jungle clearing, several dozen Colombian guerrillas in camouflage fatigues gnaw on pieces of stewed rodent and sip a hot brew made from sugar cane. These men belong to the National Liberation Army (ELN); it's the smaller of Colombia's two rebel groups, but considered public enemy No. 1 in the boardrooms of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. ELN guerrillas have been targeting the company's facilities in Colombia since the mid-1980s. In a single three-month period last year, they staged 75 attacks against a vital Occidental pipeline. A rebel leader named Comandante Guillermo claims the ELN is acting on behalf of poor workers and farmers in oil-rich Arauca state, near the border with Venezuela, whose resources are being exploited by the company's drilling operations. "Occidental has taken our oil and left nothing behind but misery," says Guillermo. Occidental says it has a large social-investment program. The ELN demands a massive increase in that spending, arguing...
  • Going Back To War

    Everything has a limit--even the patience of Andres Pastrana. For three years the Colombian president tried to negotiate a settlement of the country's 38-year civil war. He bowed to the Marxist rebels' demand for a haven, letting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have free run of an enclave the size of Switzerland. Outside the haven, the guerrillas kidnapped civilians. They raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the cocaine trade. They made prisoners of police and soldiers, then executed them in cold blood--and still Pastrana kept trying to make peace. But his forbearance finally ran out last week after four FARC gunmen hijacked a Colombian airliner and abducted a prominent senator from the flight. Pastrana announced he was through with talk. He ordered the armed forces to retake the enclave from the rebels. "We Colombians extended an open hand," the president said, "and the FARC has responded with a slap in the face."The public's reaction was almost giddy....
  • Taking Aim At The City

    At 15, John abandoned his schoolbooks for the guns, motorcycles and designer clothes of a hit man. Working for the Medellin cartel in the 1990s, he whacked drug traffickers who owed money to cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, supplied getaway cars for bombings and kidnapped civilians. Like many ghetto kids of his generation, he also revered the cartels for declaring war on the government after it agreed to hand drug traffickers over to the United States. ...
  • Your Money Or Your Life

    A Vast Gulf Between The Poor And The Wealthy Has Given Rise To The World's Largest Kidnapping Industry
  • A Revolt Against The War

    Many of La Union's 300 or so inhabitants were relaxing after a July day's work when 20 masked men armed with AK-47s tramped into the Colombian mountain hamlet. The intruders ransacked the peasant farmers' homes, severed the solitary phone connection and ordered every male between 20 and 40 to line up in the main square. One villager tried to argue with the gunmen. "This is a community of peace," Rigoberto Guzman protested. "We don't allow armed men here." The death squad's leader cut Guzman off with a terse--and false--condemnation of the entire village: "You are a guerrilla community." At that the gunmen forced Guzman and five other villagers to kneel and shot them dead.La Union is part of Colombia's "peace community" movement: a kind of grass-roots rebellion against the civil war itself. Three years ago thousands of displaced peasants from the war-ravaged rural Uraba region began a mass migration back to their abandoned homes and farms. Community leaders banned all weapons and...
  • The $1.3 Billion Question

    Bill Clinton had every reason to expect a deeply enthusiastic welcome on this week's visit to Colombia. The smiles and handshakes you get for $1 billion and change are just about guaranteed to be heartfelt. In Washington last week Clinton formally approved the release of $1.3 billion in U.S. anti-drug aid for Colombia and its neighbors. The question now is what kind of cooperation the money will buy for the United States.The answer concerns both law enforcers and human-rights activists. The aid package, including five dozen new Blackhawk and Huey 2 helicopters, is supposed to be reserved exclusively for anti-drug efforts. Even so, the largest share of the assistance is going to the Colombian military, which is locked in a merciless civil war against the country's 20,000 leftist guerrillas. Because of the Army's dismal human-rights record, the U.S. Congress had amended its aid bill to withhold the money until abusive soldiers were made more accountable to civilian authority. But last...
  • Something To Celebrate?

    With each passing day, Colombia slides deeper into chaos. The nation's 36-year civil war is turning ever more violent. Right-wing death squads, backed by drug traffickers and large landowners, massacre defenseless peasants nearly every week. Leftist guerrillas, financed by millions in drug profits and kidnap ransoms, operate in 40 percent of national territory. In the capital, Bogota, the Army recently placed 7,000 soldiers on alert in anticipation of guerrilla attacks. And the war, claiming 35,000 lives and driving 1.8 million people from their homes, has devastated the countryside, already reeling from the worst recession in 50 years. The man many Colombians blame for the growing gloom and doom? President Andres Pastrana. "This is a government without strategy, in which everything is improvised," said Mauricio Vargas, a columnist at the weekly Cambio. "This is a president who can't make up his mind."Such barbs would make most leaders blanch. But not Pastrana. As his woes pile up...
  • Earth's Blood

    On most subjects, Ebaristo Tegria can be calm, articulate, as buttoned-down as the shirts he wears and as rational as the computer on his desk. But words just about fail the 30-year-old Colombian lawyer when he speaks of the people who run Occidental Petroleum. "They want to take the blood from the heart of the world!" he tells anyone willing to listen (a category that has included princes, foreign ministers and members of the European Parliament). "They want to sterilize the earth, extinguish the Indian community and destroy the universe!"Tegria says he's part of a divinely inspired mission to save it. He and other leaders of northeastern Colombia's 7,000-member Uwa tribe have vowed to stop Occidental from drilling anywhere near their territory. According to the company's geologists, seismic tests suggest that an untapped pool of up to 1.3 billion barrels--a godsend to Colombia's battered economy--may be buried right beside the Uwas' lands. And that's where the tribe's nature...
  • Fighting The New Drug Lords

    Aside from a few human weaknesses, Alejandro Bernal Madrigal was the very image of respectability--at least by the strict but skin-deep standards of Colombia's upper-middle class. The light-complexioned, blue-eyed businessman, 40, lavished millions of dollars on his pampered stable of top-of-the-line show horses. Another favorite pastime was taking Caribbean cruises with bosomy young models aboard his yacht, the Claudia V. He was also said to enjoy an occasional puff or two of marijuana. But Bernal's little faults never hurt his social standing. His three children attended one of the best private schools in Medellin. His wife, Blanca Estela, kept fit playing tennis at the city's exclusive Ceylan Racquet Club. By the late 1990s, Bernal had reached the top of his profession. According to Colombian law-enforcement officials, he was using satellite phones and the Internet to run an export network that handled at least 10 tons of cocaine every month--roughly 25 percent of Colombia's...
  • Back To The Bad Old Days?

    Fernan Perilla had just dropped off a passenger last Thursday when he saw a cloud of smoke, then a flash of flame. When the Bogota taxi driver regained consciousness a few minutes later, his face was covered in blood and his body was riddled with shrapnel. "I asked myself what had happened," he later told the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. The answer was not long in coming: the 50-year-old cabby had escaped death in the worst bomb blast to rock the Colombian capital in six years. At least six people died and an additional 45 were injured when a 160-pound car bomb exploded--an attack authorities quickly blamed on the country's ruthless drug cartels.The timing of the blast pointed investigators in the direction of Colombia's notorious narcotraficantes. The attack occurred less than 48 hours after the nation's Supreme Court unanimously approved the first extradition of a Colombian drug trafficker to the United States in nine years. In the late 1980s Pablo Escobar and other narcotics...
  • Abduction In The Church

    Perhaps nobody was more stunned by the sudden interruption of last week's Sunday-morning mass in an upscale church near Cali, Colombia, than Father Jorge Cadavid. The Roman Catholic priest was just about to offer a "Go in peace" blessing to his congregation when more than 30 guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN) burst into the church and stopped the mass. The ELN, a Marxist group led until last year by a defrocked Catholic priest, preaches the virtues of Christian charity and social justice. But what ensued was hardly a religious mission. The heavily armed guerrillas herded 143 terrified churchgoers into two canvas-covered trucks and a Toyota van and raced out of the city, exchanging machine-gun fire with soldiers. Six hours later the captors released dozens of hostages, some of them in a minefield. They hauled the remaining 59 victims--including Cadavid--into a mountainous rain forest west of Cali. This was "a profanation of the Eucharist," said Cali's archbishop,...
  • Terror On Flight 9463

    Shortly after Avianca Airlines Flight 9463 took off from Bucaramanga last Monday, five well-dressed men sitting in the main cabin suddenly donned ski masks and brandished pistols. They forced the crew to divert the Bogota-bound turboprop to a clandestine landing strip in the remote jungles of Bolivar state, where they were met by dozens of guerrillas from the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN). The 41 terrified passengers and crew --including five foreigners --were herded into wooden boats, traveling down a river toward a nearby mountain range. Then they boarded trucks for a bumpy five-hour journey into the wilderness. After spending the night in a makeshift camp, the guerrillas eventually released nine hostages, including a 3-month-old baby and five elderly people. The rest of the hostages vanished with their captors into the inhospitable mountains, with 850 Colombian police and Army commandos in desperate pursuit.The guerrillas' latest act of terrorism shocked even Colombians...
  • The New Drug Kingpins

    Nobody would confuse the members of Colombia's "Niches" gang with Pablo Escobar. Unlike the "capo" of the Medellin drug cartel, a gaudy man who traveled with an army of bodyguards (until he was gunned down by police in 1994), these men have lived modestly in the towns of Colombia's Pacific Coast. Working as small-time merchants and boat owners, they dress casually (no diamond rings), drive normal cars (no limos) and draw as little attention to themselves as possible (no car bombs). But last week they got more attention than they ever imagined: at 3 a.m. on Feb. 24, 500 Colombian police officers, joined by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, raided several homes and arrested 19 Niches members. Antinarcotics officials said the gang was using Internet connections and satellite phones to coordinate shipments of cocaine from Colombia through a half-dozen countries to the United States and Europe. The gang's take: a cool $100 million a year.The bust was impeccably timed. It came...
  • Mourning And Outrage

    THE DAMAGE WAS STAGGERING, THE aftermath violent. Colombia's worst earthquake in a century, measuring 6 on the Richter scale, reduced much of the provincial city of Armenia to piles of jumbled concrete, steel and glass. At least 900 people died and 3,500 were hurt. And though the government rushed in 300 tons of relief supplies, it bungled the distribution. After three days without water, food or shelter, 5,000 survivors went looting. Police saved one shopkeeper from lynching; he had tripled his price for rice. ""Where's the aid, where's the relief?'' one man screamed at police. ""This government is worse than useless.'' ...
  • 'Where's The Relief?'

    THE DAMAGE WAS STAGGERING, THE AFTERMATH VIOLENT. COLOMBIA'S worst earthquake in a century, measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale, reduced much of the provincial city of Armenia to piles of jumbled concrete, steel and glass. More than 900 people died, 3,500 were hurt and as many as 250,000 were left homeless. And though the government rushed in 300 tons of relief supplies, it bungled the distribution. After three days without water, food or shelter, 5,000 survivors went looting as pouring rain compounded their misery. Mobs pried the metal doors off supermarkets to steal food and cooking oil. Old men struggled home with their backs bent under stolen sacks of flour. Police watched, under orders to avoid violent confrontations, but they saved one shopkeeper from lynching; he had tripled his price for rice. ""Where's the aid, where's the relief?'' one man screamed at police. ""This government is worse than useless.'' ...