Saturday, June 5, 2010

Law of the Jungle by John Otis

In 2007 no hostage had ever fled from one of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia's southern jungle camps and survived. During forced marches, the prisoners were tethered together by the neck. And once they arrived at their bivouacs, the rain forest proved to be a natural barrier, one so thick and menacing that much of the time the guerrillas didn't even bother fencing in their prisoners.

The great game was not so much breaking away from their captors as navigating the maze of tree trunks, underbrush, waterways, and muskeg stocked with poisonous snakes, malarial mosquitoes, and hungry jaguars. For the desperate runaway, the jungle was a lethal obstacle course.

“Prisoner, do not regret your jail,” intoned Jose Eustasio Rivera in The Vortex, his nightmarish novel about indentured Colombian rubber tappers. “You know nothing of the torture of wandering unfettered in a prison like the jungle, a green vault walled in by immense rivers. You don't know the torments of the shadows...The chains that gnaw at your ankles are more merciful than the leeches in this swamp.”

Among the hostages , however, John Frank Pinchao was a rare bird. He was a loner, and some of his fellow prisoners described him as arrogant and petulant. “John always seemed to be on the fringe of any group,” the American Marc Gonsalves said. “The one person he could communicate with was Ingrid Betancourt”.

Betancourt treated Pinchao like a reclamation project. She encouraged him to pursue his ambitions and schooled him in everything from Colombian politics to the proper way to hold a spoon at the dinner table. She also described her failed escape attempts, which moved something inside the policeman. “Ingrid was a very important person in my life,” Pinchao said. “She taught me how to dream.”

By the spring of 2007, Pinchao had been held hostage for more than eight years. In his absence, his girlfriend had given birth to their son. Desperate to get home and with a prisoner exchange seemingly ruled out, he readily agreed to join Betancourt and Luiz Perez on their next breakout. At the time, Betancourt was teaching French to Pinchao and Perez and so classes provided the cover to make their plans.

Pinchao had always hated exercise because it made his knees ache. But at the urging of Betancourt and the Americans, he began taking part in their daily routine of sit-ups, pull-ups, steps, and weight lifting. That spring, Pinchao became suddenly obsessed with learning to swim. Though he wasn't very good at it, Pinchao could at least tread water. But just in case, he scrounged a gallon-size plastic water jug to use as a flotation device.

Pinchao and his co-conspirators found a collaborator among the FARC with a GPS device, offering him $225,000 for his help. They began storing food downriver from their camp. Perez gathered tarps, mosquito nets, fishing lines, and other supplies, Pinchao began hoarding the heavier food supplies for what they figured could be a journey of up to forty-five days. Bentacourt and Perez fooled their guards by putting on extra cloths, forcing them to make the loops of chains around their arms, legs and necks a little looser, which allowed them to slip them off at will. Pinchao broke his by twisting a piece of wood through one of the links.

Everything seemed set but a few days before their planned breakout, Perez and Betancourt backed out. So Pinchao gathered up the food and other supplies and, On the night of April 28, set off on his own. “He was the mouse of the group,” Keith Stansell said. “But he had the biggest balls or anybody.”

The Apaporis was a blackwater river that meandered fourteen hundred miles southeast into Brazil before joining the Amazon. “I didn't know it was the Apaporis,” Pinchao said. “But I knew that every river pours into a bigger river and that rivers run into the sea. And I figured at some point along the river there had to be people. So I swam as much as I could and then would get out and walk when I was tired.” Sometimes he couldn't tell whether he was swimming or drowning.

While resting on the shore on day two, Pinchao thought he spotted a guerrilla search party. In a panic, he thrashed his way deeper into the jungle. When he finally stopped to rest, he was lost. Where was the river?

Pinchao spent the next six days wandering in circles searching for the Apaporis. He followed tributaries that led nowhere. He discovered a colony of monkey's who began pelting him with branches. One night he scrambled up a tree as a jaguar prowled nearby. He gashed his hand and worms took up residence in the infected tissue. Before escaping, he had secretly hoarded farina, toasted yucca flour that was a jungle staple, but his supply was now drenched and rotting. He complemented his diet by splitting open small palm trees for their fibrous white hearts. Once, he found a bird's egg on the ground and immediately sucked it dry. At night he built rough shelters out of foliage and jammed leaves under his cloths to protect himself from bug bites. But he rarely slept as night-time downpours forced him to jog in place to prevent hypothermia.

Low on food and hope and his left hand badly infected, Panchao was very much alive. After nearly a week of floundering in the jungle, a dark and desperate time, some unseen force brought him back to the river. He vowed never to let it out of his sight again. To move faster, he consider building a raft by strapping together branches and driftwood with vines. But he couldn't pull the logs out of the swift current. On the eleventh day, a military plane circled overhead. Pinchao jumped up and down screaming. He also used his tiny mirror to send a signal to the aircraft but a rescue team never arrived.

On the fourteenth day, Pinchao thought he heard the voices of guerrillas on patrol. Desperate for any kind of human contact, he began screaming, but the voices faded away. Then, he spotted a fisherman in a canoe. He called for help and the man agreed to hide the ragged policeman in the bottom of his boat as he paddled downriver.

Around the same time of his escape, intercepts of FARC radio messages tipped off the Colombian authorities in Bogota that a hostage had escaped. The commander of the anti-narcotics police for the region figured the fugitive would opt for a water route and positioned a joint army-police rescue team in Pacoa, a collection of wood plank and thatched roof huts,( a prime recruiting post for FARC), down river. But they grew tired of waiting and on May 15th the commander had ordered his choppers to fire up and head home. All the troops couldn't fit in one trip so after dropping off the first batch of troops the Black Hawks sped back to the village. In a few more minutes the last of the government forces would be gone and Pacoa would revert to its former status of no-man-land. Suddenly, Colonel Ruiz's satellite phone rang. One of his agents was calling from the banks of the Apaporis.

“I've got Pinchao,” he screamed. “ I've got Pinchao!”

He looked like an emaciated castaway. After surviving the equivalent of a seventeen-day Iron Man competition on a diet of yucca flour, palm hearts and river water, John Frank washed into Pacoa clinging to a log and tipping the scales at eighty-eight pounds. The policemen embraced the waterlogged survivor, then bundled him aboard one of the Black Hawks bound for Mitu. As he was led through the rebuilt town and taken past the exact spot where FARC had captured him, Pinchao burst into tears and began screaming the words that he'd been waiting to get out of his system for eight soul-numbing years: “Ill-born guerrilla sons of bitches!”

It is not the chains we wear around our necks that torment us. It is the anger produced by the perversity of the bad and the indifference of the good.”

Colombian Police Colonel Luis Mendieta, held hostage by the FARC since 1998.-


  1. “Law of the Jungle; The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages and Buried Treasure” by John Otis; William Morrow, Harper/Collins, 2010.

  2. Colombian Police Colonel Luis Mendieta was rescued June 13, 2010

  3. A good summary. I just finish the book in Spanish.