South of the Border Reporter
By Faith Adams | Photo by Scott Dalton
Twenty-five years later, John Otis ’85 still remembers the “C” he got on his first paper for Ron Ross’s journalism class at Macalester. The assignment was to write 250 words about why he was taking the class. His answer? Because he didn’t want to be bored in life.
Letter grade aside, Otis gets high marks for sticking to his goal. After graduating with an English degree, he wrote for alternative weeklies in Minneapolis and later for a small-town newspaper in upstate New York before moving south of the border to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an international correspondent. With an Olivetti typewriter in his luggage, he rode the Greyhound to Laredo, Texas, and crossed into Mexico. Then he joined his anthropologist brother in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where he devoted his time to learning Spanish and traveling around the country.
Soon he was off to Guatemala and Nicaragua and eventually to El Salvador, where he was detained by the military 10 minutes after crossing the border. His next stop was Honduras, where Reuters and UPI were looking for stringers. Otis was happy to get the work. “This was in 1989, and I was starting to run out of money and had been thinking about returning home,” he says. “Then I got sent to Panama.” His timing was impeccable, arriving just 10 days before the U.S. invasion.
Recent Central American history had been full of incident. There was a lot to report on. As his bylines accumulated, Otis worked his way up the journalistic food chain. He gradually moved south, finally settling in Bogota, Colombia, where he lives today with his Colombian wife, also a journalist, and their two young children. For eight years Otis was the South America bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, which makes Latin American coverage a priority. After that foreign bureau closed, along with those of most other newspapers, he began reporting for Time magazine, GlobalPost, and the BBC/PRI radio program The World. His 2001 investigation of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas received an Overseas Press Club award for the best reporting out of Latin America that year and became the subject of his book, Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure (William Morrow, 2010).
It’s a bizarre, compelling story: Colombian army commandos set out to rescue three American hostages in the South American jungle. Along the way they stumbled across $20 million belonging to FARC guerrillas. All the ingredients were there for a truelife potboiler: an exotic locale, crossed purposes, lives in peril, greed, even buried treasure. “I didn’t want to write a book about Latin America that no one would read,” says Otis. “I didn’t want to write an academic book or preach to the converted. I wanted to write a good story that would capture a broad audience.”
The best true stories often read like novels. The Washington Post compared Law of the Jungle to José Eustacio Rivera’s jungle novel The Vortex and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Green House.
Some of the book’s stories—especially those involving Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt— were widely reported at the time, but many of the surreal adventures Otis relates are largely unknown in the United States. When he began writing, the hostages were still being held, and Otis told his publisher the ending would contain “plenty of gray area.” Otis was more surprised than anyone when the hostages were rescued before he finished writing the book.
After 13 years in Colombia, Otis is happy there. “Security has gotten much better in Bogota in recent years, and it’s probably safer here than in certain other parts of Latin America,” he says. “This is a cosmopolitan city of 8 million filled with interesting, bright people. I feel fortunate to be able to lead the life I set out to lead.”
The journalist’s life is one he first envisioned as a boy growing up in Mankato, Minnesota. By the time he got to Mac he was sure he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and Ron Ross’s journalism class about the Vietnam War only reinforced that notion. “For a small school in the middle of the country, Mac had a big international presence,” he says. In the early ’80s there were ongoing protests about U.S. policy in Central America. Students were fully engaged in the wider world and ready to explore it.
The education I got at Mac opened my mind to possibilities and made me realize that my life was going to be a long journey of selfeducation. Some of the things I read in a Victorian poetry class as an English major still influence me 25 years later. I feel lucky where I’ve ended up, because being a journalist pretty much means being paid to become smarter and to educate other people.”
FAITH ADAMS is a Midwest writer. This is her first article for Macalester Today.