Author John Otis was in town recently to mark the publication of Law of the Jungle, his amazing book about Colombian guerrillas, American hostages, and the super-clever 2008 rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors who had been held in captivity for years.
Otis recently sat down with a writer at our sister paper, Miami New Times, where the following q&a first appeared:
By Tim Elfrink
In 2003, a ragtag team of Colombian soldiers hacked through jungle on a search for three American contractors who had been kidnapped by FARC rebels. Instead of finding the victims, the soldiers stumbled upon an underground stash of rebel cash totaling more than $20 million.
The American contractors — Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes, and Marc Gonsalves — spent five more years in FARC captivity. It took one of the most remarkable operations in history, complete with theater-trained operatives, fake NGOs, and a helicopter evacuation, to save them.
In the new book Law of the Jungle, veteran Colombia correspondent John Otis weaves together both stories to tell the tale of modern Colombia’s struggle against the rebels. Otis talked with us about his book.
How did this book come about?
Otis: I’ve been based in Bogota for 13 years writing mostly for newspapers, and you realize eventually that you just don’t have enough space in an 800-word story. I wanted to write a book that average readers could pick up and really understand something about this place. Like how you can pick up Black Hawk Down or Into Thin Air and learn about something completely different and get sucked into the tale.
So why did you choose this particular story?
It was the most surreal story I ever worked on. First, these troops are looking for these three American hostages and they stumble onto all this cash. I wrote it as a newspaper story for the Houston Chronicle, and I thought right away it could make a great book.
Then, it turned out the mission of these soldiers was to find these hostages. They were looking for these three kidnapped Americans, and it was really a big deal in part because [French politician] Ingrid Betancourt was also being held. So I started getting way more into the hostages as I wrote the story. It ended up centering on Keith, Mark and Tom, running parallel with chapters on the soldiers looking for them and finding this money.
When did you start writing this? After the hostages were rescued?
No, which is funny. In Colombia, nothing usually turned out quite right. When I talked to the book’s editor, he loved the story but the only issue was, ‘How are you going to bring it in for a landing?’
I was thinking it would end with these guys still stuck out in a jungle somewhere, because I started writing this more than a year before the rescue.
How difficult and dangerous was this to report? What kind of access could you get?
I talked with the Colombian intel agents at the center of this, who went into the camp. They came over to my house and told the whole thing. Getting access to the guerillas was very difficult. But I’d spoken to all the top FARC guys when they were in peace negotiations. I’d done interviews with all the key players in the book before, which helped.
What’s happened to the Americans now? Are they back in the States?
Yeah, Tom lives in Merit Island, and Keith lives in Bradenton. Mark was in the Florida Keys but now he’s in Connecticut. All three have returned to work for Northrup Grummond. Two of the three ended up getting divorced because kidnapping kind of puts your family through a wringer. The third ended up getting married to his Colombian girlfriend, who had his twins while he was in captivity.
What’s the big-picture takeaway for your readers about life in Colombia?
It’s first of all just a really great yarn. It’s just a very interesting story. Whether you’re reading about something in New York or Louisiana or Mexico, you can connect to it because who doesn’t dream about finding $20 million?
And the rescue is just amazing. I think it’s the most amazing hostage rescue in history. The way they fooled the rebels was incredible. They didn’t fire a shot. It was a completely peaceful operation. They completely pulled a fast one on the guerrillas. I’m still awed by what they did.
You also get the vegetables, the insight into Colombia’s kidnapping industry. You learn the history of guerillas, and you can kind of trace how Colombia’s military goes from bumbling soldiers hungry for money to this crack rescue team.
I think our perception here in the States is that life has really improved in Colombia, especially compared to what’s happening in Mexico right now.
Yes, I think that’s really true. For instance, everyone in Colombia knows someone who’s been kidnapped. I’m married to a Colombian journalist, and my father-in-law was kidnapped twice. My former roommate, Ruth Morris, who’s based in Miami now, was almost kidnapped twice in the same day.
But the kidnapping rate has gone from 3,000 a few years ago to last year only 200. That just shows that security has improved drastically.