10 May 2013

Robert Young Pelton's tale with Colombia's AUC

Robert Young Pelton, perhaps the world's only "kidnap" victim allowed to have tourist snaps taken of him with his captors. Does this guy look like a kidnap victim or more like an adventurer planning on seizing a story for self-aggrandisement?

Last week I went public with my suspicion that self-styled adventurer and Foreign Policy columnist Robert Young Pelton is a fabulist. Pelton’s response was swift and aggressive. He dared me to put up $1,000 for every accusation I make. He even posted my last column on his website, ridiculing the suggestion that he is a fraud. The emailed reaction to my last article has only served to confirm my conclusion that his "kidnapping" in Colombia (a key component of his self-identity and used in virtually all of his bios) never happened.

Mr. Pelton, I gladly accept your $1,000 challenge. Unlike you, I am not a millionaire and $1,000 is a considerable sum for me but I assure you it will be put to good use.

Let me back up. When I received a callback from my source I asked "I've got a few questions about what happened in Colombia to Pelton, could you help?" The answer: "sure, shoot." In the course of doing research for a piece about human rights violations in Colombia, I came across the story of Pelton's alleged kidnap in January 2003 by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary terrorist organization. Something was off about Pelton’s story. Different versions, different numbers, and different places, none of the protagonists’ accounts matched.

While Pelton was busy telling the world he had "walked into a firefight", his Panamanian jungle guide said they were "camping on a river bank when they were intercepted" by the AUC. One of Pelton’s American travel companions, 22 year-old Mark Wedeven stated "we were not kidnapped", while his other American travel partner, 22 year-old Megan Smaker, recounted how they were ambushed on "top of a ridge, where five rebels popped up with AK-47s..." It was like a South American Rashomon tale.

In Colombia, Pelton told the man that arranged his safe passage from the AUC that he hadn’t been kidnapped. Back in the U.S., however, he told National Geographic that he was kidnapped by a "right wing paramilitary group".

In 2003, he said he "had stumbled into the middle of a 150-man search-and-destroy mission aimed at FARC rebels supposedly hiding out in Panama." By 2013, the size of the "search-and-destroy mission" had grown to "175 members of the AUC on their way to invade Panama." His Panamanian guide however, Victor Alcazar, declared they had been "intercepted by 12 paramilitaries" later joined by 60 others.

One of the sources I contacted, said that Pelton's wife, Linda Pelton, was worried after a few days that Pelton hadn't communicated with her. That prompted her to reach out to some people that could find out what was happening with Pelton. Perhaps she wasn’t aware that he may have been with a 22-year-old paramour. Here's how the press reported about it:

That's what Linda Pelton wondered last month when her husband, adventure writer Robert Pelton, and two young hikers ventured into the jungle on the Colombia-Panama border and were captured by a right-wing paramilitary group. She called a friend, who called Brian Jones, a defensive tactics instructor and security consultant in Connecticut, who has arranged training events with Smith. 

"When someone's life is on the line, you need to have the best person, the most skilled in a specific situation," Jones said. 

Smith can handle distraught people, see the big picture and take charge, Jones said. "What separates Jamie from the others that I know has nothing to do with skill but has to do with his get up and go, if you will." 

Smith picked up Jones' message Jan. 22, on his way home from a training gig in San Diego. He snapped into action, skipping sleep to make arrangements, and flew with Byrd to Bogota, Colombia, the next day. 

They joined a journalist friend of Pelton's who arranged for the hostages' release to a priest. [Added: that journalist would be Steve Salisbury].


Robert Young Pelton, author of The World's Most Dangerous Places: A Guide to Warzones and host of a Discovery Channel show of the same name, has first-hand experience with SCG. Pelton was kidnapped by a Colombian paramilitary group in January of last year while hiking through the country researching an article for National Geographic. Even though the group released him after 10 days, Jamie Smith was brought in to find him and make sure he got out of the country.

"Security firm specializes in kidnap, ransom and rescue", Memphis Business Journal, July 18, 2004.

When I said to Pelton that sources involved with his extraction said he had not been kidnapped, he replied "I was never extracted." That contradicts the actions of Pelton's very own wife, as noted above.

Bear with me, dear reader, it’s about to get very bizarre. The most common definition of kidnap is to take someone by force to be used as a bargaining chip -as is regularly the case in Colombia-, to get ransom, to make political demands, etc. Further, kidnapping usually takes some degree of preparation and planning or an objective of some kind. The first source I spoke said that Pelton was most definitely not kidnapped. The fact that Pelton and his travelling companions were handed after a few days to a priest, without a scratch, by AUC's Elmer Cardenas group -responsible for the killing, disappearance and displacement of 11.127 people- leaves little doubt that kidnapping was not AUC's intention. AUC's Elmer Cardenas group top commander, Alfredo Berrío (aka El Aleman), had this to say: "los gringos se toparon con un campamento nuestro, y al confundirnos con la guerrilla comunista de las Farc, se declararon simpatizantes de sus ideales. Por represalia, los tuvimos hasta que nos cansamos", which translates as "the gringos walked into one of our camps, mistook us for FARC and declared they sympathised with [FARC] ideals. We had them until we got tired as reprisal." He should know what happened, right? AUC's supremo, Carlos Castaño, also commented on Pelton's "kidnapping" saying that they had been retained for their own safety and handed over to priests. These contradictory statements from terrorists are not conclusive.

Giving Pelton the benefit of the doubt, I sent an email to Colombia's highest authority at the time, after all the AUC and the Colombian government were about to start peace talks in the very days Pelton got lost in the jungle, and asked whether the AUC had used Pelton as a bargaining chip in their demands to the government.

The reply I received was: "Jamás les habría tolerado el crimen por el cual usted pregunta", translation: "I would have never tolerated the crime you are asking about." In other words, the Colombian government would never have accepted such a thing. So Pelton wasn't even mentioned.

I also got in touch with journalists and foreign correspondents in Colombia, some of whom have interviewed AUC top commanders, and were excellently placed at the time to know what happened. Pelton's account did not fly with them either. One of them laughed at the very suggestion that Pelton was kidnapped.

Next thing I did was to confront Pelton with my suspicions. I must admit that I wasn't expecting the kind of reply I received, in one email Pelton wrote: "Can we wager lets say, $1000 per accusation so we can make this interesting? As I mentioned I have videotape, witnesses and photos of both events and I would love to make some money off either of these."

It seems that Pelton doesn't take criticism lightly. In a completely unrelated matter, his account of Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan for Men's Journal also draw criticism, from the U.S. Army no less. When confronted by a blogger about his article, Pelton wrote:
"Old Blue…Dude I already sent you an email but you can’t seem to respond. I say again: do you want to to actually prove what you are saying. You have my request. So man up, and grow a name and a wallet. I will be waiting. I thought I was being quite charitable so I don’t agree with the hatchet job label. There are far more vocal critics out there. As your comments on untruths. As I offered you…how much money would you put up if I can prove them to be false. Its easy to say something, much harder to actually prove them. My charities await."
I’m not going to get into other published accusations of serial fabrications by Pelton—let’s just focus on Colombia. So what do we have here? We have a writer that should be writing fiction passing as a reliable source. We also have reputed news outlets, such as National Geographic, Men's Journal, Foreign Policy, etc., basically taking Pelton's word at face value. Whatever happened to fact checking?  And when someone challenges Pelton he immediately wagers bets. Nobody takes him on.

Pelton posted this recently, in his own website:

Turns out I was the first to hike the trail in three years (the guys that did it before were kidnapped) and I walked into 175 members of the AUC on their way to invade Panama. I cautioned the two folks to downplay their kidnapping while in country and describe it as a battlefield detention because the AUC has a long reach in Colombia and outside of the region. People were murdered, villages were burned. We were under armed guard 24/7. Mark had a meltdown after the event. Meg was ok and did some interview. I flew to Iraq cuz the war was kicking off there. Same shit, different outfit. 

What numbnuts doesn't know is that the State Dept essentially held us hostage and were leaning on us to press charges...while in country. Trying to make us poster children to go after Carlos and the AUC BEC. The AUC BEC is the oldest and most violent paramilitary group in Colombia. I pointed out that they weren't going to be around when an angry man with a chainsaw shows up at my house to tamper with the evidence. Mark and Meg agreed that this was Colombia's war and we weren't going to crusade for State despite being kidnapped. 

Robert Young Pelton, "Re: RYP Hype. Fanboys in Colombia", May 6, 2013.

The lone hero was even abandoned by his government! As it turns, in this version not only had the AUC held Pelton hostage in Colombia, the U.S. State Department contributed by their inaction! Man, that must have been one fucked up trip. But notice that Pelton says he was "the first to walk the trail in three years".

How can he possibly know that? Actually, how can any editor or fact-checker know that? Did he conduct a survey before starting his trek? What data supports that claim? Is it not common knowledge that Darien is basically a highway of drug dealers, coyotes, and all sorts of South American people travelling north? Further, was he not handed over to a priest in Unguía, which is close to Arquia, the place Pelton wanted to get to? Does that mean hundreds of AUC soldiers, Kuna indians and area residents use that route on a regular  basis? It would appear so: Marie Christine Lacoste, reporting from Boca de Cupe, has it that three Kuna indians were on their way to Arquía (Pelton would have you believe he was the first one on that trail in three years, remember?) heard someone ordering them to stop, shots were fired, they started running towards Paya (from where Pelton & co were coming from), found Pelton & co, warned them about what was happening, and left.

Naturally, Pelton spins the yarn further: "I cautioned the two folks to downplay their kidnapping while in country and describe it as a battlefield detention because the AUC has a long reach in Colombia and outside of the region." So Wedeven and Smaker falsely stated they had not been kidnapped purely on Pelton's advice. Only trouble with that is that Pelton himself said, repeatedly, that he was not kidnapped in Colombia:
Robert Young Pelton, a TV producer and dual U.S.  and Canadian citizen, said they never felt kidnapped and were treated well.  He speculated that AUC took them to prevent their seeing atrocities.

"Colombia War Takes 'Right' Turn; Anti-Communist Forces Negotiate with Government", Washington Times, January 28, 2003.
Pelton also informs groupies of his forum that the AUC "has a long reach... outside of the region". What "reach" is, or was that? Could Pelton point out one single instance, "outside of the region", whereby AUC had participated in any criminal activity? The world's bravest man seems to have been worried that the AUC would show up in his house in California with a chainsaw to "tamper" with evidence...

No, Robert Young Pelton is likely afraid that he would end up like Greg Mortenson. A disgraced fabulist who takes his readers for a ride and laughs all the way to the bank.

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