With a shovel and metal pole to probe for bones and treasure, Segundo Salazar digs deep into the hot desert sand on Peru’s northern coast looking for the graves of his ancestors to loot.
For generations, peasants like Salazar near Sipan, a village surrounded by sugar cane fields 500 miles northwest of Lima, have made a living as “huaqueros"--the Quechua Indian word for “grave robbers.”
Tunneling into the sand near their homes, they have harvested gold, ceramics, tapestries and precious stones from tombs left by the Moche civilization that flourished in the area from 200 B.C. to A.D 700.
The thieves are the first link in the multimillion-dollar illicit trade in archeological artifacts left by the Incas and other Indian civilizations that thrived in Peru before the Spanish conquest.
“The traffic in archeological treasures out of Peru is second only to drug trafficking in terms of money made, and the damage it does to the study of our past is incalculable,” says Walter Alva, director of the Bruning Archeological Museum in nearby Lambayeque.
The recent capture of two Florida men in Philadelphia peddling a gold relic looted from a Moche tomb for $1.6 million put a new spotlight on the plundering of tombs and the weaknesses in Peru’s laws against trafficking in artifacts.
FBI agents arrested the two men in October while they were allegedly trying to sell a 1,700-year-old Moche “back flap” designed to shield a warrior’s buttocks.
In early November, a federal grand jury charged them with conspiracy, smuggling and interstate transportation of stolen property. They face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
The back flap’s convoluted trail began in 1987 when peasant looters stumbled on one of the 10 royal tombs of Sipan--the richest graves in the Western Hemisphere.
From there, it passed through the hands of private collectors, then was smuggled to New York, investigators say. It ended up in the trunk of a car outside a Philadelphia hotel.
The Panamanian consul in New York resigned after being accused of involvement in the case.
And one of the men arrested with the back flap in Philadelphia alleged it belonged at one point to Alan Garcia, Peru’s president in 1985-90. Garcia strenuously denies that he ever possessed the item.
The case is part of a U.S. crackdown on trafficking in looted Latin American archeological artifacts within its borders. In June, Washington signed an agreement with Peru prohibiting the importation of certain pre-Columbian artifacts. Earlier in the year, it signed a similar agreement with El Salvador.
In Sipan, the desert terrain where Salazar is digging looks as if it has been bombed from the air. Hundreds of holes dug by looters pockmark the sand. Bits of bleached-white human bone litter the ground.
Salazar, who has plundered graves for more than 10 years, says a Moche cemetery lies below. He says he feels no shame for looting his ancestors’ graves.
“Some days I’ll find nothing. Other days I’ll find a quality pot or necklace that I can sell for 10, 20 dollars. We are a poor people. We do this to survive,” he said.
In the nearby village of Cayalti, police have seized more than 3,000 looted artifacts in the last two years.
Many top archeological sites are now guarded by police, and looters face prison terms. But that is not enough to end the plunder, said Alva, the museum director.
“The gangs of grave robbers operate with impunity. The law has too many defects, holes and ambiguities, allowing the illicit trade to continue,” he said.
Peru’s law, passed 12 years ago, punishes people who loot tombs or smuggle artifacts out of Peru, but not those who buy or possess looted pieces. That means collectors cannot be touched and demand for artifacts continues.
Most artifacts smuggled out of Peru are sold to private collectors in Europe, the United States and Asia, whose numbers have burgeoned in the last 30 years, Alva said.
The combination of collector demand and peasant poverty makes it hard to stop the plunder, he said.
The looting of Peru’s heritage grabbed world attention in 1987 when the grave robbers discovered one of the royal tombs of Sipan, where the Moches buried their rulers with fabulous riches.
Overnight the looters became rich, throwing lavish parties. But word of their newfound wealth got out, and several months later a scientific team headed by Alva and protected by police arrived to stop the looting.
Near the plundered tomb atop a 100-foot-high earthen pyramid, Alva found a second tomb--that of the Lord of Sipan, a Moche king buried 1,700 years ago amid golden masks, silver necklaces and 1,200 ceramic vessels painted with scenes of daily life.
Archeologists have since found a total of 10 tombs, each containing 500 to 600 artifacts of gold, silver, copper and other metals.
Much of what was looted before the archeologists arrived has never been recovered.
“The smuggling networks are like drug-trafficking networks,” Alva said.
The looters sell the artifacts to local buyers who sell them to regional buyers in mid-size cities like Chiclayo, Trujillo, Chimbote or Ica. The regional buyers sell the artifacts to international traffickers in Lima.
Alva says traffickers often smuggle the artifacts out of Peru disguised as modern Indian-style crafts being legally exported.
The plunder of Peru’s relics began with the Spanish conquest and has become part of Peru’s culture, said Miguel Mujica Gallo, owner of Lima’s Gold Museum.
For centuries, graves were seen as mines to exploit and only in the last 30 years has legislation sought to control the traffic, he said.
In 1938, in the greatest known plunder of the century, the owner of Batan Grande, a hacienda 30 miles north of Sipan, used a bulldozer to break open a pyramid and is said by witnesses to have extracted 15 potato sacks full of gold artifacts.