The looting of archeological sites for artifacts, in Guatemala and around the world, has exploded in recent years. Fueled by international demand, the multi-billion dollar black market antiquities trade strips known and unknown archeological sites of their artifacts, architectural elements, and an incalculable amount of scientific context and history.

Guatemala’s cultural heritage has been plundered for decades; the situation was particularly acute in the 1980’s and 90’s due to a profitable international trade in Mayan antiquities. However, in 2014, the National Geographic described how “huecheros,” a local label for archeological looters, are still prevalent in great numbers. According to the report:

Almost every pyramid in the sprawling site has a looter’s tunnel on at least one side. Most of the hieroglyphic panels, the pottery, and the jade from tombs here have been raided and sold on the black market to wealthy foreigners. One of the tallest pyramids—a majestic building that slices high in the air like the Temple of the Great Jaguar—was actually cut in half by looters, making it look like a giant stone napkin holder.

For more information on looting in Guatemala, and of Mayan artifacts in general, watch David LeBrun’s fascinating documentary feature film Dance of the Maize God.

Maya tone vessel looted in Guatemala

Maya Stone Vessel Looted in Guatemala (Stephen L. Alvarez, National Geographic)

Looting and the antiquities trade have particularly damaged Guatemala’s deep pre-Columbian archeological past. The Maya civilization stretched throughout Northern Central America, and its written language, monumental architecture, and beautiful, expressive art and sculpture made it an attractive target for looters. Most at risk was the rich Petén region in the Northern Guatemala lowlands. There, a thick jungle cover had hidden a phenomenal wealth of Maya archeological sites for centuries, and looters are free to cut stone sculptures from larger monuments, and tear jade artifacts and polychrome-painted pottery vessels from plundered tombs. These artifacts are then sold for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each, Robert Sharer, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist testified to the Department of State in 2002, but their scientific loss is inestimable.

“Since far more sites have been destroyed by looting than scientifically excavated, we have already lost a huge amount of unique information that could have given us a far better understanding of Maya civilization. Now we will never know what has already been destroyed,” Sharer told National Geographic magazine a year later.

Art and artifacts of Guatemala’s colonial period (1524-1821) also represent a significant part of the country’s history. However, though there has been a bilateral agreement in place between Guatemala and the United States to prevent the illegal import of Pre-Columbian artifacts since 1997, this agreement did not protect colonial artifacts until 2012. Theft and smuggling of colonial artifacts in Guatemala, particularly of religious icons and other objects housed in churches, was equally as widespread as the looting of Pre-Columbian artifacts before the modification of the bilateral agreement in 2012. Perhaps one of the most significant examples of this issue was the 2001 theft of the Virgin of Carmen statue from a church in Guatemala City. Fortunately, this statue was later recovered. However, numerous other colonial pieces may never be found.

Effigy artifact from Guatemala

(Stuart Rome)

In Guatemala, the Ministry of Culture protects the country’s most prominent sites with guards. Government-sponsored archeological programs locate, register, and excavate additional sites. Joint American-Guatemalan excavations at sites like Waka—key in the power struggle between Maya superpowers Tikal and Calakmul—also discourage looting. But newly discovered sites are often looted by the time archeologists arrive, or can be plundered by well-armed teams when the research season ends. In many cases, the looters operate from highly organized camps in the forest.

There have been successes in the fight against looting in Guatemala: in 2003, Guatemalan undercover agents, archeologists from America’s Vanderbilt University, and local villagers working together were able to recover a 600-pound stone Maya altar stolen from a royal ball court at the site of Cancuén. Near that same site in 2006, however, a rare and beautifully carved stone box that may have once contained a written Maya codex, was reported stolen by looters.

Vessel artifact from Guatemala

(Diego Molina)

The problem remains the illicit international market, experts say. Guatemalan looters are only feeding the demand of private foreign collectors. “They’re working for five or ten dollars a day to find all these things that end up selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Brent Woodfill, a Vanderbilt archeologist, told National Geographic in 2006.

Currently, the National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City is the public home for preservation, study, and display of Guatemala’s public collection of archeological artifacts. However, plans for a new museum, the Maya Museum of America, a joint public-private undertaking between Guatemala and the Maya Museum Foundation, is in progress in Guatemala City to house the public collection.

 

The United States has worked with Guatemala to stop cultural heritage destruction since 1991, when, faced with a flood of looted and smuggled Guatemalan artifacts, the U.S. took emergency action to restrict the flow of illegally excavated archeological items. In September of 1997, Guatemala and the U.S. went one important step further and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that restricted imports of Pre-Columbian archeological artifacts from throughout Guatemala. The MOU is revisited and revised every five years, and was renewed in 2002, 2007 and again in 2012. In 2012, the MOU was amended to protect not only Pre-Columbian antiquities, but also Guatemalan cultural artifacts of the colonial period. Subsequently, objects protected under the current MOU date from 2000 B.C. to 1821 A.D. The MOU allows the U.S. government to put legal pressure on the smugglers and American buyers that make looting lucrative and contribute to the destruction of the Guatemalan past.

Read more about the MOU, or bilateral agreements here.

Other international organizations have been active in promoting cultural heritage preservation in Guatemala, including a 2015 project by UNESCO and the Japanese Funds-in-Trust for the Preservation of World Cultural Heritage in Tikal National Park, which aims to stabilize structures, train staff, and build a digital archive at the site of an ancient Maya complex.

The majority of antiquities coming from Guatemala are of Maya origin. Because the ancient Maya civilization existed throughout much of Mesoamerica, it is quite difficult to determine the precise geographic origin of a Maya antique without documented provenance information. Maya antiquities continue to sell for thousands of dollars at major auction houses and on eBay and online galleries, encouraging the continued looting of Mayan sites in Guatemala and Mesoamerica.

Maya altar recovered from looters