During the years they were held hostage by leftist guerrillas in the Colombian jungle, American military contractors Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell would talk about selling the rights to their story to moviemaker Oliver Stone if they ever got out alive. But the chronicle of their captivity has more the feel of a John Huston movie, with its mix of tragedy, intrigue, black comedy and, ultimately, heroism.

The three men were employees of a Northrop Grumman subsidiary, assigned to flights over the jungle to spot cocaine laboratories. Their plane crashed in early 2003, and they were quickly captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) guerrilla army. In Law of the Jungle, longtime Latin America newspaper correspondent John Otis weaves their story with the misadventures of a group of Colombian soldiers sent to rescue them and the wider context of Colombia’s long struggle with political violence, corruption and drug trafficking.

Few emerge with much credit in this even-handed book: American corporations ignore warnings about aircraft problems; U.S. officials in Washington distracted by the Iraq war pay little attention to the hostages’ plight; Colombian government and military officials are alternately inept and criminal; the guerrillas are brutal and staggeringly ignorant. Through it all, the hostages endure. Some of the book’s most fascinating passages describe their lives in jungle camps, where they were held with politicians, soldiers and police officers who had also been kidnapped. The only prisoner who managed to escape was a police officer who provided information that led to a breakthrough for rescue efforts.

Despite years of neglect and setbacks, the outcome was a triumph. The hostages were rescued in mid-2008 by a bold Colombian intelligence trick, carried out almost flawlessly and recounted by Otis with verve. By then, Oliver Stone had publicly called the FARC “heroic,” though he said the kidnappings went “too far.”

Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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