National Geographic Adventure
While on assignment for National Geographic Adventure, contributing editor Robert Young Pelton, along with two traveling companions, Mark Wedeven and Megan Smaker, was kidnapped on January 14th by a right-wing paramilitary group in Panama's Darién Gap. The Bloque Elmer Cardenas, a splinter group of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, released Pelton and the two young backpackers last Thursday after holding the trio captive for ten days in the jungle borderland between Panama and Colombia. Pelton finally returned home to Redondo Beach, California, last night.
Pelton, author of The World's Most Dangerous Places, has spent 28 years exploring the world's hot spots and war zones including Chechnya, Sierra Leone, and Colombia. On an earlier assignment for Adventure, Pelton accompanied Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and a unit of U.S. Special Forces during the campaign against the Taliban. In the course of reporting that story, ("The Legend of Heavy D and the Boys," National Geographic Adventure, March 2002), Pelton also discovered American Taliban John Walker Lindh, and conducted the interview that was seen worldwide on CNN.
During his trek through the Darién Gap, Pelton was prepared to encounter Colombia's left-wing guerrillas or its right-wing paramilitaries who use the wilderness as a safe haven. Luckily, he also had the know-how to protect his life and the lives of Wedeven and Smaker. When Adventure spoke to him shortly after his release, two other journalists on assignment for the Los Angeles Times remained in the custody of another group of Colombian insurgents. Here, Pelton discusses how he was capturedand how he came back alive.
What was the impetus to visit and write about the Darién Gap?
The Darién Gap is one of the lastnot only unexploredbut one of the last places people really hesitate to venture to. It was sort of the Everest of backpackers in the 80s, and in the last five years it's been a no-go zone for everybodylocals and foreignersand of course that's what attracts me to it. When I was 19 I wanted to cross the Darién. But I was warned off and told it was impossible, and back then I was young and foolish and I didn't do it. So I thought it was just kind of a completion in my life to do that.
What was your impression of it? Is it one of the world's most dangerous places?
Yesit's also one of the most rugged places. The basic problem of the Darién Gap is that it's one of the toughest hikes there is. It's an absolute pristine jungle but it's got some nasty sections with thorns, wasps, snakes, thieves, criminals, you name it. Everything that's bad for you is in there.
What led to your capture?
I'd hooked up with two backpackerstwo 22-year-olds, Megan [Smaker] and Mark [Wedeven]. I thought it would be fun for me in my jaded old age to experience it through their eyes. I met up with Meg in Panamaand Mark I met in the map store where you go to get maps on the Darién Gap (which of course they don't have) and we just chatted and he said let's do it. We hadn't found anybody who'd done it in three years. We were warned off by the police and told not to do it and finally found a guide. We did a new route that's never been done before.
How did the ambush occur?
We had probably been traveling a week before it happened. We set off with three Kuna Indian guides on this route that goes through Capeti, Púcuro and Paya [in Panama] to Arquía on the Colombian side. And at about 11:44 in the morning, three Kuna Indians passed us on the trail, and all of a sudden we heard automatic gunfire for about three minutes, about a half a mile [0.8 kilometer] from us. Our guides ran awaythey dropped our stuff and just took off. And we had a discussion as a team. I suggested we walk into the ambush as opposed to try to hide or run away. The jungle is very dense, so if [armed men] hear people in the bush, the first thing they do is start shooting. So we decided to talk very loudly in English and keep together as a group and let them know we were coming. It took about a half hour for them to calm down because they were so amped up. I don't know if you know what it's like when you walk into a firefightbut they were wired and twitchy, shouting and yelling.
Ultimately they killed four people from Paya, and they burned Púcuro to the ground on the 18th and the 19th.
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