A harrowing and funny story of life and death

  • Article by: KEVIN CANFIELD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2010 - 5:59 PM

John Otis offers a thrilling take on a long-running hostage tale and a spending spree by some wild-eyed Colombian soldiers.

Law of the Jungle by John Otis

When 147 hard-nosed Colombian GIs came into an absurd sum of money -- cash hidden (but not hidden well enough) by powerful drug-runners -- they did what any battle-hardened men would do.

They went to the mall.

Bent on exchanging their military-issue garb for more fashionable duds, the soldiers peacefully stormed clothing stores with names like Original Sin, reports John Otis in his gripping and funny new book, "Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerillas, American Hostages and Buried Treasure."

"They left behind pairs of muddy combat boots in the dressing-room stalls," Otis writes of the unlikely shopping spree in Popayan, Colombia. " ... The accessorizing continued at the El Dorado jewelry store where a handful of troops, seemingly intent on sticking out and flaunting their wealth, purchased thick gold-rope chains."

Otis, who grew up in Mankato and went to Macalester in the mid-1980s, now lives in Bogota, Colombia, and has worked as a reporter in Central and South America for more than 20 years. He tells an amazing story in his first book. In February 2003 five employees of a firm employed by the U.S. government to root out Colombian drug crops crashed their ill-equipped Cessna Grand Caravan in a remote part of the country's lush jungle.

Two of the men, an American and the group's Colombian guide, died. But the other three, all Americans, managed to survive -- only to be plunged into long-term captivity, held for more than five years by the brutal mercenary group known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were finally freed during the summer of 2008, and Otis tells their story in the sort of rich detail you'd expect of an experienced print journalist (he's covered foreign conflicts for Time and the Houston Chronicle). He writes of the three men not as heroes, but as human beings with complicated personal lives who envisioned their quasi-governmental employment as a means of filling their wallets and satisfying their thrill-seeking natures.

The story of the three men held against their will -- far from home and for years on end -- is, of course, plenty to base a book on. But Otis' telling also benefits from a colorful subplot: those bizarre circumstances that resulted in mall-crashing soldiers shopping for fancy clothes and bling.

The GIs, as it happened, enriched several sectors of the Colombian business community. In one instance they visited a bordello called Kaliente where, Otis writes, "the drunken soldiers promised to buy [prostitutes] motorcycles and the finest garments and to pay for their kids to go to private schools."

Now that's an economic stimulus package.

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York. He's reviewed books for Bookforum and other publications.

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  • LAW OF THE JUNGLE

    By: John Otis.

    Publisher: William Morrow, 368 pages, $25.99.

    Review: Otis, a journalist and Macalester grad, uses rich detail and colorful subplots in this well reported book about three Americans held captive for more than five years in Colombia.

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