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Museum’s Priceless Pre-Columbian Artifacts Recovered : Mexico Miracle: Stolen Art Found

Times Staff Writer

While in the past, Mexicans made offerings to their many Indian gods, it seemed Wednesday that the gods had responded with an offering of their own: the miraculous return of 111 pre-Columbian artifacts stolen from the National Anthropology Museum on Christmas Day, 1985.

For more than an hour, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, his Cabinet and scores of other dignitaries put aside Mexico’s overwhelming social and economic problems to receive the national treasures and enjoy the sense of well-being that came with their return.

“Each of these objects brings us a message from our past, from ancient civilizations that forged an era of singular glory,” Salinas said. “Each piece also bears hope for the continued efforts we must make today to create a better life for all.”

Mayan Jade Mask

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Among the priceless artifacts that were found are a Mayan jade mask and necklace, an Aztec obsidian vase in the form of a monkey and the mask of a Zapotec bat god. They are in pristine condition.

To the crowd gathered in the museum’s magnificent patio, Salinas added, “We have recovered part of our injured pride.”

The theft was one of the biggest ever in museum history and humiliated Mexico when it was discovered on Christmas morning 3 1/2 years ago. Mortified officials insisted that only foreigners could have committed such a crime against the nation. They sheepishly admitted that the country’s treasures had been guarded by just eight security people and no alarm system.

The guards were reportedly runk or sleeping during the burglary. Cookies and glasses with liquor residue were found in the museum.

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Since the burglary, most Mexicans have assumed that the treasures were gone forever, sold on the black market to private collectors throughout the world. But on Monday, Atty. Gen. Enrique Alvarez del Castillo announced the arrest of one of the two suspects and the recovery of all but 13 of the stolen pieces. Although the original police report mentioned 173 stolen artifacts, officials now say there were 124 objects, some of them with several pieces.

Alvarez said that Carlos Perches Trevino, 28, was caught at his home in the northern suburb of Satelite. Police are still searching for his only suspected cohort, Ramon Sardina, 30. Both are Mexican citizens.

According to Alvarez, the official declaration by Perches and newspaper accounts, the heist was carried out in this way:

The two men, then veterinary students, planned the break-in for six months. During that time, they made about 50 trips to the museum to study and take photographs. They examined the pieces and display cases, the museum halls and the outside of the building. Most importantly, they watched the security guards.

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Crawled Through Duct

Perches and Sardina originally planned the heist for New Year’s Day, but when they learned of plans to repair the museum’s air conditioning system, they moved up the date.

After celebrating Christmas Eve with their families, the two changed into black clothing and met outside the Perches’ house in the Jardines de San Mateo neighborhood. Perches drove them to the museum in his Volkswagen.

Carrying a canvas suitcase, the two crawled through an air conditioning duct into a projection room in the basement of the museum’s Maya Room. It took them 30 minutes to clean out 124 of the best pieces from three rooms. They left the museum the same way they had entered, without ever seeing a security guard.

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Perches returned home with the full suitcase, which he then hid at the top of his closet for the next year, while authorities searched bags at airports, train stations and international borders.

Alvarez said Perches then moved to Acapulco, where he made friends with drug traffickers, to whom he eventually tried to sell the artifacts. One of the alleged traffickers, Salvador (El Cabo) Gutierrez was arrested in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state, earlier this year and led police to Perches, according to Assistant Atty. Gen. Javier Coello Trejo.

Coello said police observed Perches for 45 days before arresting him.

Roberto Garcia Moll, director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, said that all government museums in Mexico now have beefed-up security. He said more guards have been added along with training. The museum has sophisticated alarms and closed-circuit cameras.

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He said high-security cases are being built for the recovered treasures. For now, the pieces are on special exhibit at the museum.

President Salinas viewed the treasures with much of official Mexico and left beaming.

“It is very important for Mexico to recover the past,” said author Gaston Garcia Cantu. “We have been stripped of so much of our territory, our resources, our forests. We have been plundered. It is difficult to explain to an outsider what this means.”


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