National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Adventure Magazine Reporter Recounts Ten-Day Kidnapping by Colombian Death Squad

Nicole Davis
National Geographic Adventure
January 27, 2003
 
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 captured—and how he came back alive.

What was the impetus to visit and write about the Darién Gap?

The Darién Gap is one of the last—not only unexplored—but 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 everybody—locals and foreigners—and 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?

Yes—it'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 backpackers—two 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 Panama—and 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 away—they 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 firefight—but 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.

What kind of treatment did you expect from your captors?

When I first saw them, I thought they were paramilitaries because of the way they were armed and their haircuts. I thought that we might be beaten or they would detain us and question us and hold us until they could figure out who we were. And I had a fair level of confidence, because of my experience with these groups, that once they found out I was a journalist and that my two companions were tourists, that they would detain us, but they wouldn't kill us. The main thing is that they'd just tried to kill these three Kuna. The AUC—which are right wing paramilitaries called Autodefensas—were convinced there were FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] rebel groups using these towns as staging areas [which I don't believe to be the case].

You've been detained before in other rebel-held territories and war zones—but never for longer than a day. Were you worried you wouldn't make it through this?

Every hour is a new hour when you're held hostage at gunpoint. You don't know how long you're going to be there, whether you're going to be killed, released, whether your captors are going to be attacked by other people. Your captors go through various moods—sometimes they're friendly, sometimes they're very abrupt, sometimes they pass you to different groups of people. We were being passed from group to group, and being moved further and further into the jungle, almost on a daily basis. But they did seem to be very concerned with feeding us. They fed us up to five times a day. They weren't beating us, they never mistreated us or insulted us or threatened us. It was a very strange experience. They seemed to be bending over backwards to make us happy but at the same time they were holding us in the jungle against our will so there's a strange sense of, "Are they doing this until they execute us, or do they genuinely want to protect us and take us to Colombia or are they just playing for time until they find out who we are and demand ransom?" You live in a bubble—you don't have any communication, or a way of finding out if what your people are saying is true.

Do you feel like you tempted fate by going to a region known—especially by you—for its high rate of kidnappings and murders?

I tempt fate by going to the grocery store. The reality is that there's no safe activity. But I've been with both groups—the FARC and the paramilitaries and I fully expected to meet them both [in the Darién Gap]. I had actually sent e-mails to both groups before I left.

Do you feel lucky that you came out of it alive?

It's not really luck. You're in a certain mindset when you're kidnapped. You want to win the respect of your captors, so they drop their guard. You want to make sure that you're always aware of what's going on. And you want to make sure that, should the moment arrive, you can escape. Because you are being held by people who chop up people with machetes. These are not boy scouts.

I'm pretty comfortable around rebel groups and terrorist groups, so I know their mindset. But the two people I was with were 22-years-old—this was the first time they'd been in a situation like this. (I think their parents drew some type of comfort that at least their kids were in the jungle with someone who makes a living writing books about what to do when you're kidnapped.) So I kept the morale up, made sure that we earned the respect of our captors, [saw] how far we could push them.

What were those ten days like?

After the initial ambush, we were just sort of parked in one spot with people literally standing over us with guns throughout the entire night. And then the next day we were moved to another location, and we just sat there for two days. We put our hammocks up and just basically ate all the time. They didn't have much food—they had rice, a couple of tins of sardines, but they shared it with us. They didn't talk to us, but they weren't rude to us. But every day is different—all of a sudden you get woken up at four o'clock in the morning and get marched off into the jungle and then they would stop and cook and then you sit for two days—so there was no clear-cut pattern or rhythm.

Do you think your experience in crises like these helped to safeguard your lives, or do think the AUC never intended to harm you?

They're smart enough to not do something without orders from the top. I think everyone knows the consequences of killing three Americans. And communications were a problem in the jungle so they had to wait until they got orders from up top. I think my aggressive approach—which was to say to them, "I'm here to find out more about what's going on, I want to know more about you"—that's what they respond to. I wasn't saying, "Please let me go. Let me go." I was saying, "I want to hang out with you." As far as I know, this is the first time an outsider has spent this much time with the Autodefensas in a real military operation.

Was the AUC looking for media attention?

In the beginning, no. Later on they used it as a political football because they were actually in talks with the Colombian government, and they realized that because the AUC was holding these Americans, [the Colombian government] could say, "Well, wait a second. You're kidnapping Americans now, we don't want to talk to you." So we immediately became a cause celebre in Colombia because [the AUC claimed] we were being held for our safety and we were being protected from the FARC. Don't forget they didn't have a plan in place when we showed up. They just had to react to our being there in the middle of a major military operation.

How were you released?

There were all of a hundred armed men around us, and a Roman Catholic priest showed up, and all of a sudden the men just vanished, and we walked out with this priest. But the funny thing was, [immediately afterward] we were basically kidnapped by the Colombian police. We were taken to a police base by 11 cops in a speed boat. They wouldn't let us walk into town and have a shower. They were terrified about our security. Then the U.S. embassy sent a plane to pick us up. This is the first time I've been free to walk around and do [anything I want].

Two other journalists, Ruth Morris and Scott Dalton, are currently being held hostage by left-wing guerillas (the National Liberation Army, or ELN) in Colombia. What do you think about their situation?

The story is that they'll be released when the political climate is right—so obviously they're being used as a bargaining chip. I think the ELN is upset that the FARC and the Autodefensas seem to be moving toward political recognition, and the ELN has taken this drastic step of kidnapping two journalists, thinking it's going to help their political standing. What I predict is that they will be released safely. I don't think [they'll be held for] more than month.

Do you have any advice for travelers going to this region?

The Darién Gap is an extremely dangerous place—it's probably the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, definitely in Colombia. It's used as a conduit for drugs. There are no police there, there's no military, the trails aren't marked. Kuna Indians are freaked out now because of the violence being perpetrated against them. Unless you have a lot of experience in Colombia, I wouldn't suggest it. [For the most part] the jungle there is not viewed as a place that is pristine and beautiful—it's looked at as a place where you get killed. Because no one bothers gathering information, like I did. I mean, I know how you can hike the Darién now. But you have to have a group of armed men with you.
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.