Kidnapped: backpacking in a “red zone”

Travels to Colombia often put themselves at the mercy of dangerous situations.
Travels to Colombia often put themselves at the mercy of dangerous situations.

Before he was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), Kevin Scott Sutay served as an army combat engineer in Afghanistan.

Amanda Lindhout was also a veteran of war zones. Prior to her kidnapping in Somalia, she worked in Afghanistan and Iraq as an aspiring photojournalist.

Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Joshua Fattal lived in Syria before their detention by Iranian authorities in 2009. All three were seasoned travelers.

These individuals tragically overestimated their ability to gauge dangerous situations and navigate treacherous areas. They equated a lack of problems in the past with a keen sense of danger worldwide.

“There’s always a war somewhere,” Sutay reportedly told his captors, explaining why he had decided to travel alone in the remote department of Guaviare. “Just because there’s a war or an armed conflict going on, it’s not going to keep me from enjoying my vacation.”

According to an interview FARC published on its website in early October, Sutay was warned against visiting this part of southeastern Colombia. “But I wanted to go, so I went,” he allegedly said.

[quote]The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has rescued 19 individuals in Colombia so far this year.[/quote]

Sutay is not the first traveler to venture into dangerous territory in Colombia.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has rescued 19 individuals in Colombia so far this year. In 2012 they rescued 36.

Jordi Raich, the head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia, said his organization has secured the release of 1,500 people here since 1994.

The most recent kidnapping victims in Colombia include Spanish and German tourists, a French journalist, a Canadian and two Peruvians employed by a mining company, and several Chinese and Colombian citizens. Whether for work or travel, most of these individuals were in “red zones” – areas with significant guerrilla or paramilitary presence – when they were captured.

While some victims are obligated to visit “red zones” for work, the kidnappings of tourists who visit these areas out of either ignorance or recklessness are entirely preventable.

Colombia offers dozens of safe tourist destinations, and it’s important for travelers to know the difference between getting off the beaten track and trekking through guerrilla-controlled territory.

Raich encourages travelers to take the same precautions he requires of his staff.  “We inform ourselves about whatever place we’re planning to travel, especially if it’s a remote or isolated area,” he explained.  “It’s important to be well-informed and understand the situation.”

Many foreign embassies provide safety guidelines and tips on their websites. The United States Embassy, for example, encourages tourists to register their trip details online and offers a free Smart Traveler app that provides up-to-date security information.

On its website, the Canadian government maintains a list of departments to which visitors are advised against traveling.

Kidnappings result in not only a psychological trauma for victims, but also a financial and diplomatic burden for the countries and organizations involved in securing their release.

Sutay’s liberation on Oct. 27 was the result of lengthy negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government to decide on a rescue commission. The ICRC then spent two weeks organizing the details of Sutay’s release, a logistical nightmare that required the expertise of more than 30 individuals.

While Raich stated that reuniting a victim with his or her family is worth any cost, he acknowledged that Sutay’s rescue was very expensive.

Although by most accounts security has improved significantly in Colombia over the last few years, certain regions of the country are still plagued by armed conflict.

Like every nation, Colombia has dangerous areas where unwary tourists and foolhardy travelers can run into trouble.

Traveling alone in Guaviare, a department largely controlled by FARC, is something akin to strolling through the South Side of Chicago after dark: it’s never a good idea, no matter how much experience you have or how lucky you’ve been in the past.


  1. I think Alex makes some fine points. While the city I lived bogota, my fiancée tells me is generally safe. As a gringo with blonde hair, even blending in I still stand out. We would frequently have to change taxis because people trying to rip us off and take us on a joy ride. Thankfully my fiancée kept me safe and out of trouble. Going backpacking in a red zone is an obvious no-no.

  2. This is all a bit too simplistic. Where are travelers supposed to find out details? the foreign Goverment websites are way too general. They recommend against travel to swathes of the country that hold some fantastic attractions.

    I have approached colombian Police and Military for advice but seldom receive anything but generalizations. Once the local police in the Choco told me a particular river trip was fine less than a week before a police officer was taken hostage off one of the very same boats. And the Spanish tourists you mention were taken from Cabo de la Vela -an extremely popular destination among independent travelers and hardly of the beaten path.

    These travelers calculated the risk and decided to take it. that is their prerogative. In the case of Mr Sutay – he is alive to tell the tale. Those shot during robberies in Bogota or Medellin are not. Should we avoid those cities too? Thieves are a far greater risk for your average independent traveler than armed groups.

  3. great article. good comparison of Colombia and the US. Every country has their safe and unsafe areas, best to know which is which ahead of time. In addition to the financial cost of being kidnapped, there is a psychological cost to family and loved ones. He pulled a selfish stunt, and should feel lucky, by no fault of his own, to be alive. Keep writing!!

  4. Thanks for this timely article. Just read a travel log in Melbourne Australia detailing how cool it is to travel and backpack in Colombia. People always underestimate and think that the dangers are exaggerated.


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