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."

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