Red Zone by Alan McTeer is a story of action, adventure, and (literally) fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants escapades. Based on the author’s actual experience, the novel follows a pilot who plans to fly a small plane to Colombia and collect a delivery fee then return to Miami on an airliner. Unfortunately for him, the Colombian passengers who he also agreed to deliver accidently start a fire, forcing him and his Cuban copilot, Mario, to crash-land the burning plane near Venezuela. Worse, Alan’s and Mario’s passports are destroyed in the fire.
They are near the Guajira peninsula of Colombia, a notorious area known as the Zona Rojo or “Red Zone” where cocaine smugglers have a flourishing trade. Rather than risk heading that way, Alan and Mario strike out on foot toward the border of Venezuela, which they believe to be the lesser of two evils. They find that being caught in Venezuela indocumentado (without documents) and being accused of trafficking in drugs is, to put it mildly, not a good thing at all.
If you like stories that hearken back to older tales of adventure and derring-do, Red Zone will keep your interest and thirsting for a sequel, which is hopefully in the works. Alan and Mario are not portrayed as angels - they both have their fill of human failings and foibles - but that only adds to the realism of Red Zone, making one wonder how much of it really did happen and how much has been fictionalized. The torture Alan experiences to try to make him confess to piloting the plane and smuggling drugs into Venezuela and the time he and Mario spend in jail there is described in chilling detail.
Though at first he denies having tried to smuggle drugs into Venezuela, saying “Who flies drugs into Venezuela?” and thinking the accusation almost comical, the beating both he and Mario suffer at their hands (and gun one of the Guardia Nacional soldiers hold to Mario’s head) are no laughing matter. It becomes clear that the soldiers are not interested in hearing the truth - they want to hear confessions and become famous for busting the two gringos from the “drug plane.” Despite initial protestations of innocence, under the pressure and pain of beatings and electric shocks, Alan eventually tells the men all they want to hear and gives them the name of the Venezuelan man, Manolo, who arranged for him to deliver the plane. Another man involved, Raul Hernandez, had ripped Alan off of $50,000, his share of the profits in an earlier trip to Venezuela and plane deal, necessitating more involvement with the plane-ferrying scheme in order to earn money to buy a plane for himself.
The months the two men spend incarcerated in the Venezuelan jail system and their attempts to get out are, alone, worth the price of Red Zone. When they finally do get out, that’s really only the beginning of their saga. They are still without legal papers and have to deal with the Colombian Jota in the Red Zone. Jota wants Alan to work with him flying cocaine out of Guajira to Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Alan tells him he won’t do it, but when his and Mario’s lives are threatened, he doesn’t have much choice in the matter and agrees, all the while planning ways to thwart the success of the deliveries and make good his and his copilot’s escape. Revenge on the man whom he feels is responsible for his problems, Hernandez, are somewhere off in a distant future, as is a reunion with his girlfriend, Julia.
Red Zone is a tale of men pushed to their limits and beyond. Several times in the novel, Alan feels like giving up and committing suicide. He vacillates between feelings of hopelessness caused by the desperate situations he finds himself in and formulating new plots to escape from the clutches of the Venezuelan jails and the Colombian drug cartels. He is worried that Julia has forgotten about him and has, inevitably, moved on. But survival drives him on, as does the longing for revenge and the renewal of his love with his girlfriend, and these keep him sane and alive during the worst of his experiences in South America.
If a word of explanation had been included in either an Introduction or Afterword about what elements of Alan’s adventures in Venezuela and Colombia were fictionalized had been included in Red Zone, I would likely have given it five stars. That’s about the only thing that I believe would have made this book just a little bit better. It’s a really fascinating novel, and one that will leave readers wanting to see more from the writer Alan McTeer in the future years.