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Travel Author Captured in Panama

Robert Pelton, two other Americans were taken by Colombian fighters, authorities say.

January 22, 2003|Jessica Garrison and T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writers

The author of the travel book "The World's Most Dangerous Places" was kidnapped with two other Americans near the Colombia-Panama border, police said Tuesday.

Author Robert Young Pelton, 47, of Redondo Beach, Megan A. Smaker, 22, of Oakland and Mark Wedeven, whose hometown wasn't released, were traveling Saturday through a lawless area used by Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary groups for drug and arms trafficking, authorities said. Pelton was researching a story for National Geographic's Adventure Magazine.

Smaker is a firefighter who was traveling on vacation, Pelton's wife said. The three may have met in Panama City and shared a guide, she said.

Pelton wrote the book on how to avoid such situations, but during a visit to Indian villages in Panama just north of the Colombian border, the group was captured after about 150 heavily armed invaders swept into the village.

Four local Indian leaders were killed, Panamanian police said.

Carlos Castano, leader of Colombia's violent right-wing paramilitary groups, told Reuters that the three Americans had been taken into custody by his forces to protect them from leftist guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He said they would be turned over soon to the Roman Catholic Church.

In Redondo Beach, Pelton's wife of 26 years, Linda Pelton, said she is clinging to that news.

"He's gone to some pretty intense areas," she said. "He's a really focused, smart man, and he does not do anything stupid."

Linda Pelton, who works with her husband but said he does not want her traveling to dangerous places, said he left Los Angeles on Jan. 5 and was due home Jan 15. At first, when she didn't hear from him, she didn't worry.

"It's normal that he could be delayed for a few days," she said. "Transportation isn't like we have it."

But over the weekend, she said, "I felt like I needed to find him." She said she called and sent e-mails to embassies. On Tuesday, she got a call: Her husband had been captured.

Robert Pelton, who was born in Canada, always had an adventurous spirit. He has hitchhiked through war-torn Central America, and is said to be the first journalist to set up a video interview with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, and the first American journalist to interview John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Talib.

He has survived car accidents, muggings, attacks by African killer bees, and a plane crash in the central highlands of Kalimantan on the Indonesian island of Borneo.

According to his Web site, "Pelton's approach to adventure can be quite humorous.... Pelton still faces each dangerous encounter with a sense of humor and an irreverent wit."

Examples on the Web site include calling the Taliban "a bunch of women to their faces," challenging headhunters to a chug-a-lug contest and "indulging in a little target practice with Kurdish warlords."

Once, according to the Web site, he helped break American citizens out of jail in Colombia.

On Tuesday, when police reached the remote region where Pelton was captured, many villagers already had abandoned the towns of Paya and Pucuro, Panama. Other villagers told local reporters that the paramilitary fighters said they were killing Indian leaders for aiding leftist guerrillas.

Colombia's internal conflict pits leftist guerrillas against the government and the paramilitary fighters who form an illegal private army held responsible for the majority of massacres in the country during the last several years.

Both guerrillas and the paramilitary groups make frequent incursions into Darien province, a trackless jungle region in Panama. The region's remoteness makes it ideal for smuggling weapons and drugs.

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Special correspondent Berta Thayer contributed to this report from Panama City.

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