How credible is Robert Young Pelton?

From left: Mark Wedeven, Megan Smaker and Robert Young
Pelton after release by Colombia's AUC. 
Fabulists, embellishers, and fradusters are often found in the media. The United States has no shortage of professional exaggerators, when it comes to military exploits and accomplishments. Sometimes men who claim to have “served” in “active duty” in Vietnam for instance—providing the perception of wading through rice paddies, were actually sitting at a desk job and never once picked up a rifle.

Imagine then my surprise when I came across a bizarre set of contradictions involving a celebrated adventurer: Robert Young Pelton. This is how Pelton describes himself:

"Author and filmmaker Robert Young Pelton is renown for overcoming extraordinary obstacles in his continued search for the truth. Pelton’s career consists of bypassing media, border guards, and military groups with the purpose of getting to the heart of the story..."

One of his bold claims: “He has been kidnapped by right wing death squads in Colombia..."

Pelton is a man who has become a brand name for danger. A quick Google search will provide plenty of proof of his adventures into dangerous places. Pelton regularly survives mortar shells, terrorist attacks, waltzes through war zones, meets impossible to find fugitives, and always escapes without a scratch. Some of the time his tales are personal accounts with no secondary evidence whatsoever. If he is to be believed, he is a modern day action-figure—an Indiana Jones. The extract above comes from his very own site, comebackalive.com, a commercial online platform where punters can read about his travels, and buy travel kit, insurance, but most importantly, it is a huge ad for his ongoing book sales.  Pelton is also a frequent writer for such respected outlets such as Foreign Policy.

I came across Pelton when I was reading about an incursion that Colombian guerrillas did into Panama, killing four people in the villages of Paya and Púcuro in January 2003. I recently published in Colombia’s Semana and collaborate regularly with its journalists, and so I thought I’d do a column on the AUC and their human rights violations.

In a National Geographic interview with Pelton, entitled "Adventure Magazine Reporter Recounts Ten-Day Kidnapping by Colombian Death Squad" the following can be read:
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.
The news of Pelton's kidnapping was hot. It was published far and wide. But a claim by his companion Mark Wedeven, made right after his release and distributed by the Associated Press, contradicted Pelton's narrative:
"Wedeven said he never felt that he and his fellow travelers were abducted. "We were not kidnapped," Wedeven said. "During the time we were with the AUC we did not have any problems.""
Unfortunately Mark Wedeven died in 2010 after being caught by an avalanche in Mount Rainier. However a program about his time in Panama and Colombia called “Locked up Abroad,” also for National Geographic, aired in 2010. In the program, Wedeven's personal account of what happened is aired, and says "we weren't restrained, our hands were never bound…" which would reinforce earlier claims about not having been kidnapped. Wedeven also contradicts Pelton's claims of having walked into a firefight. Wedeven states that they were walking towards the location where gunfire was heard, and were surprised and ambushed by four men.

Megan Smaker, also party to the expedition, seems to lean more towards Wedeven's version, saying "After about 30 minutes, they came to the top of a ridge, where five rebels popped up with AK-47s..." as opposed to Pelton's "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."

I kept digging.  The more I found the more I realized something was off, like  reports in the Colombian media, that claim that Pelton et al were sort of “intercepted” by the AUC while they were walking in the Darien jungle (Wedeven & Smaker version), and protected by the AUC until they could be safely handed over to religious authorities, which indeed happened. There's also an actual press release sent by AUC commander Carlos Castaño to Reuters, where he claims that Pelton and his companions were found wandering in the Urabá, Chocó region, and were escorted out of the area for their own safety.

So here we have a party of seven people (Pelton, Wedeven, Smaker, guide Victor Alcazar, and three Kuna porters), crossing the Darién Gap. It is highly suspect, in my opinion at least, that a seasoned traveler to the world's most dangerous places, as Pelton claims to be, wanders into an area known to be dangerous with a 22-year-old blonde without any experience in similar situations (a volunteer firefighter) that he allegedly met online, and some other 22-year-old thrill seeker, equally clueless and inept, that Pelton bumped into in a map shop in Panama (I am not joking—these were Pelton’s companions). The accounts about what happened in Colombia simply don't match, most parties contradict what Pelton claims. Then, the three of them were handed over to a  priest, completely unharmed. No ransom or other demands were made in exchange for these valuable hapless Americans. What kind of a kidnapping is that? Meanwhile, Colombian authorities believed this all took place in Colombian territory, while Panama's former President, Mireya Moscoso, claimed it happened in Panama.

In the meantime, Pelton's expedition guide (Pelton the all-conquering hero of the world's most dangerous places hired a jungle tour guide), Victor Alcazar, is quoted as saying that they were camping on a river bank, when they were intercepted by a dozen paramilitaries.

Other versions [see here, and here] relate to three Kuna indians going towards Arquía, a town in the Chocó region, when they heard a voice ordering them to stop and then some shots. They started running back towards Paya, and on the way they encountered Pelton and co, and warned them, but they decided to carry on.

I couldn’t believe these contradictions so I began to make some phone calls. Undermining even further Pelton's version, a source that became involved in getting the AUC to safely escort Pelton out of Darien to hand him over to priests, told me by phone that "Pelton was never kidnapped," but rather "invented" the whole thing.

Shades of Professional Fabulist Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson
The fact that Pelton spent a few days with the AUC in Colombia is not in question. Rather it is what would appear to be his embellishment of events, his twisting the truth, for commercial reasons. Fact checking such tales is practically impossible: Wedeven is dead, guerrilla  commanders that "kidnapped" him can't be reached. There are no easily accessible communications to Kuna indians, though perhaps Smaker would like to shed light on how and where exactly she first met Pelton (not in Panama I've been told). Pelton's account appears to be made up, he turned a “found walking in the jungle by the guerillas and then escorted by them to some priests” into a “kidnapped by right wing death squads in Colombia” story. Pelton has literally dozens of tales ranging from Chechnya to Mogadishu to Papua New Guinea. All places where locals would never be trusted if they contradicted this National Geographic explorer, so what else has he been inventing?

In 2009 I was working for a human rights group and was a staff member at an event in Norway,  the Oslo Freedom Forum. Mortenson, a household name, was one of the guest speakers. Mortenson was the hugely famous American who had been setting up a schools for girls in Pakistan. It turned out that Mortenson's books, sales of which netted him millions, were based on a wholesale fabrication of events. Some of the biggest lies included being present in Mother Teresa’s bedroom as she lay there just hours after her death, and being kidnapped by the Taliban. All lies. And nobody could contradict him. One man, Jon Krakauer, began to peel back the voluminous layers of bullshit and the entire house of cards came crashing down. Mortensen was not just a fraudster with his book, he was also defrauding the foundation he had created by spending millions of dollars on private jet travel, and pumping up sales of his book by having the foundation buy them in bulk to keep them at the top of the best-seller lists.

Finally, I did reach out to Pelton, with some of my questions, he replied dismissively:
"You can check with local news sources for independent photographs and accounts of the event. Just google it. There is plenty of video footage taken as well."
There are sources allright, Mr Pelton, some linked above, and the independent accounts do not support your version. It does strike me as odd that Colombian guerrillas would free Pelton and his travel companions just like that. It seems implausible. Someone like him is a huge bargaining chip, and I certainly don't buy macho stances from a gringo supposedly talking his way to freedom with Colombian criminals, who BTW were coming back from a killing spree in Panama. So I am throwing down the gauntlet, and hoping there are others who can help me crowd-source research into what appears to be the military version of Greg Mortenson.

Further reading: Robert Young Pelton's tale with Colombia's AUC.

1 comment:

ishtar enana said...

Some time ago, I investigated Pelton's reltion to Iraq and wrote a piece about him posted on my blog. It is in Arabic, give me some time to translate the main points if you are interested.