A review of Law of the Jungle by John Otis (2011)

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A review of Law of the Jungle by John Otis (2011)
★★★★1/2
Law of the Jungle is a successful effort by John Otis, a longtime South American correspondent, to document the kidnapping of three American military “contractors” who had the misfortune to crash in the southern hinterlands of Columbia on February 13, 2003. Their work as professional avian counter narcotic “spies” assisting the Columbia government in spotting and eradicating coca fields ends the minute their single-engine Cessna seizes up at 12,000 feet. The plane is forced to crash land onto a jungle mountainside. Pro-communist, anti-government FARC guerillas—young peasants with few avenues to a better life—surround the crash site, taking three men into “custody”: Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes.
Otis’s telling of this tale is based on extensive interviews of several parties involved: the Columbia and U.S. governments, members of the FARC, other prisoners, and especially the Columbian special forces tasked with rescue. Great attention is paid to the plight of the men’s families as they wait for the return of their loved ones. Though thoughtful description of the men’s several year imprisonment is given, Otis also brings the reader the fuller picture of the FARC’s history, South American politics, the narcotics trade, and the disparity between richer, urban Columbians and their poorer brothers and sisters. The United States Government’s interests are documented, as well as governments of other kidnapped nationals. Local officials and members of the Columbian Army, however, fear the jungle most because they are the guerilla’s favorite victims. The FARC kidnaps thousands of prisoners a year, mostly soldiers and politicians, detaining them for months, sometimes years, to fund their activities. The FARC is hounded by better equipped government soldiers, however, and is forced to constantly move the Americans through the thick jungle; any rescue attempt will result in their immediate execution.
One interesting (and entertaining) occurrence Otis describes thoroughly is how 80 Columbian Army counterinsurgency soldiers, most young and poor themselves, hunt the FARC terrorists through jungle so thick, light barely penetrates to the ground. On their quest to find and free the Americans, the elite soldiers stumble onto an abandoned FARC camp where barrels stuffed with millions of Columbian pesos and US dollars are discovered. Initially, this is to the soldier’s glee. They stuff their pockets, returning to base to drink and spend their way through their “godsend,” only to face the wrath of the Columbia Army brass.
Otis does a great job weaving the vast, complicated jungle social-political theater together. His due diligence pays off: the scenes of hardship, anxiety, violence, even boredom, are believable. Otis uses a masterly command of early twenty-first century American lexicon, combining it with a deep understanding of the Columbian people, their culture and language. Deep with details, it never loses focus on the hard, brutal effort required to free the Americans. It’s a rich read. Four and a half stars out of five.

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