Colombian Rebels Release Kidnapped Adventure Travel Writer

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
January 24, 2003
Members of a Colombian paramilitary group released three Americans who
were taken hostage in the Darien province of Panama nearly a week ago.
Danger-seeking author Robert Young Pelton was among those released. The
writer was on assignment for National Geographic Adventure
magazine at the time of his capture.

A U.S. Embassy official in Bogota, Colombia, confirmed this afternoon that the trio was released yesterday evening into the custody of a priest and local official from Unguia, a small town in northwestern Colombia approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) from Bogota.

It's believed that members of the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by it's Spanish acronym AUC, kidnapped the trio—Robert Young Pelton, 47, of Redondo Beach, California; Megan Smaker, 22, of Brentwood, California; and Mark Wedeven, 22, of Boulder, Colorado—sometime last weekend while they were traveling through the lawless Darien district of Panama near the Colombian border.

Carol Wedeven of Bremerton, Washington, the mother of Mark Wedeven, told National Geographic News today that she and her husband David were telephoned at 6:30 a.m. this morning by John Rogan, a U.S. Embassy official in Bogota, who informed the parents that their son was safe.

"They had talked to Robert [Young Pelton]. All three of them were safe. They were under the Colombian government's protection and were being flown up to Bogota," Wedeven said.

Wedeven said that early last weekend officials from the U.S. Consulate in Panama called to inform both she and her husband that their son Mark and two traveling companions where missing in the Darien province. "They registered to go in, and they didn't come out in time," she said.

"We were real glad that Robert was with him. That gave us a good feeling," she said. "We've just taken it step by step and just prayed. We're real glad he wasn't killed."

The trio was last seen traveling in the company of a Panamanian guide in the town of Paya, a small village of Chocoe Indians, just north of the Colombian border, according to reports provided to U.S. Embassy in Panama by Panamanian authorities.

The Reuters news agency reported on Wednesday that AUC forces lead by warlord Carlos Castano captured the trio after attacking two villages on Saturday. As many as five people were killed in the attack, according to Panamanian police reports cited by the news service.

The AUC is one of three guerrilla groups that use the sparsely-populated jungle forests and rugged hills of Panama's Darien as a refuge to elude Colombian government forces and as a base for resupply.

The Voice of America also reported on Wednesday that Castano issued an e-mail stating that the three Americans were being held for "their own safety" and would be released when safe passage could be arranged.

The Hostages

Pelton is an adventure travel writer renowned for his swashbuckling forays into global trouble spots. The Canadian-born former public relations executive, who holds dual U.S. citizenship, is the author of four books, including The World's Most Dangerous Places, a guide to global hotspots, and Come Back Alive, a travel advice book billed as "The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Disasters, Kidnappings, Animal Attacks, and Other Perils of Modern Travel."

Pelton previously reported from Afghanistan for National Geographic Adventure, profiling Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and the exploits of American Green Beret forces operating in the country. During that assignment, Pelton interviewed captured American Taliban John Walker Lindh for television cable news network CNN.

Carol Wedeven speculated that her son met up with Pelton and Smaker in Panama while registering to cross the Darien.

Mark Wedeven, a college student on leave from formal classes at the University of Colorado in Boulder, had spent the past year traveling in Central America as part of an independent study project. He embarked on his trip last January over the Martin Luther King holiday and was nearing the completion of his year-long journey, his mother said.

Carol Wedeven described her son Mark as independent and adventure-seeking, noting his climbs up "the wrong side" of Mount Rainier and Mt. Constance in his home state of Washington. She said her son's Spanish skills were strong and that he mentioned plans to study at an international school in Bogota, Colombia, and to work his way back to the U.S. onboard a freighter ship.

Smaker works as a seasonal firefighter in Santa Clara County, California, and was described by colleagues as an accomplished world traveler who had trekked across Australia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, according to a report published in today's Oakland Tribune.

Relief Follows Tense Days of Waiting

A statement issued late this afternoon by National Geographic Adventure indicated that Robert Pelton's wife Linda had also been contacted by U.S. and Canadian embassy officials and informed her of husband's well-being.

"Robert is fine and healthy and looking forward to coming home as soon as he can," she was quoted as saying.

National Geographic Adventure Editor in Chief John Rasmus was quoted in the same statement as saying, "While we were very concerned for [Pelton], we also knew how resourceful and experienced he is in situations like these. Once we knew he was safe from the immediate danger, we were pretty confident that he'd come out of it unscathed."

"We're relieved that he and his group are OK, and we're looking forward to Robert's story," Rasmus said.

More than 3,000 Colombians are kidnapped in the country each year. Since 1998, 46 U.S. citizens have been abducted in the country. Three well-known guerrilla groups, the AUC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are known to engage in kidnappings for profit and for terrorism.

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