Adventure Writer Reportedly Kidnapped in Panama

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
January 22, 2003
A Colombian paramilitary group has reportedly kidnapped three Americans,
including adventure travel writer Robert Young Pelton, in the
Darién Gap region of Panama.

The trio has held been held since Friday by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group, according to a report broadcast early this afternoon by Voice of America.

Paramilitary leader Carlos Castano said in an e-mail media statement that the three travelers were being held for "their own safety" and would be released shortly to a humanitarian organization or church, according to the news agency.

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Guy Olson, reached in Panama this afternoon, told National Geographic News that Panamanian authorities notified embassy officials on Sunday that two American citizens and one Canadian citizen were missing in the area. Olson said it was later confirmed that all three missing travelers were American.

According to sketchy reports, the three were last seen on the afternoon of January 17 near the town of Paya in the Darién Gap region of eastern Panama, Olson said.

Eyewitness information gathered by Panamanian police and passed on to U.S. embassy staff in Panama reported that the trio was traveling in the company of a Panamanian guide when they were ambushed by Colombia guerrilla forces and fled into the jungle, Olson said. It's believed that paramilitary members later captured the American trio.

The Panamanian National Police are heading the investigation, Olson said. Panamanian National Police spokesperson Didacio Carmargo, reached by telephone in Panama, declined to comment on the reported kidnapping.

Three Americans

The three alleged captives are Robert Young Pelton, 47, of Redondo Beach, California, Megan A. Smaker, 22, of Oakland, California, and Mark Wedeven, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The newspaper reported that Smaker works as a firefighter and was vacationing in Panama. No details were available on Wedeven at press time.

Pelton is renowned for his swashbuckling, adventure travel writing. The former public relations executive often journeys to remote, dangerous locales to meet with guerrilla groups and military leaders in countries torn by civil unrest.

He is the author of more than four books, including The World's Most Dangerous Places, a guide to global trouble spots, and Come Back Alive, a travel advice book billed as "The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Disasters, Kidnappings, Animal Attacks, and Other Nasty Perils of Modern Travel."

Pelton was traveling in Panama to research a proposed story project for National Geographic Adventure magazine.

Pelton has previously reported from Afghanistan for the magazine, profiling Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and chronicling the exploits of American Green Beret forces fighting in the country.

During that assignment Pelton interviewed captured American Taliban John Walker Lindh for the television cable news network CNN. A contributing editor to National Geographic Adventure, Pelton recently penned a series of columns for the magazine dispensing advice on safe travel.

National Geographic Adventure Editor-in-Chief John Rasmus said in a statement released this afternoon that his staff has been in contact with Pelton's family and U.S. government authorities. "We're hopeful that the situation will be resolved quickly and peacefully," Rasmus said.

Paramilitary Refuge

The Darién Gap is a relatively small, thickly forested and sparsely populated region of rugged hills and few roads that straddles borders of Panama and Colombia.

In Panama, the region's remote location and proximity to the Colombian border has made it a favored refuge for left- and right-wing paramilitary groups from Colombia who often cross the border into Panama to elude government forces.

"It's an area where for decades rebel groups from Colombia have been taking temporary refuge," Olson said. "They come across the border to flee Colombian authorities."

"They come into this Panama jungle area and they'll just hang out there for a while and re-supply themselves, try to get some food from the locals, and then go back to their activities in Colombia," Olson said.

Colombia has battled rebel insurgents for more than 40 years of civil unrest.

The U.S. Department of State consular information sheet on Panama warns U.S. citizens that travel in the Darién Gap region of Panama near the Colombian border may be dangerous due to "the activities of drug traffickers, Colombian guerrillas, and Colombian paramilitary groups."

The recently reported kidnapping of the American trio occurred exactly two weeks before the 10-year anniversary of the disappearance of three American missionaries who were traveling in the Darién Gap region of Panama.

Authorities believe the missionaries, members of the New Tribes Mission, were kidnapped in Panama by FARC, a left-wing Colombian guerilla group, and taken across the border into Colombia, Olson said.

Authorities presume the trio was killed, Olson said.

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