Thieves across Latin America are looting the graves of Indian civilizations to feed the demand of the world’s collectors of pre-Columbian artifacts.
The plunder is worst in Peru but is also a problem in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala.
Looters stole almost the entire contents of the most important archeological find made in Colombia this century--the Malagana treasure, from a culture that thrived from 180 B.C. to A.D. 70.
The burial site was discovered by sugar cane workers in 1993 on a hacienda northeast of Cali. By the time archeologists arrived, the site was a honeycomb of holes dug by swarming treasure-seekers.
All but 18 of the 140 gold relics and ceramics from Malagana displayed by Colombia’s Gold Museum in 1996 were bought from looters or dealers.
In Ecuador, there are few authorized archeological digs, but there are “alarming numbers of people digging up archeological sites,” archeologist Presley Norton says.
Mexican archeologists say the U.S. and Mexican governments have cracked down on smuggling of looted artifacts, but trafficking continues.
The U.S. government in October returned a collection of ancient Indian pottery and effigies that had been looted and smuggled to a private collector in Arizona.
In Guatemala, thieves are taking advantage of unguarded archeological sites in the vast jungle in the northern province of Peten to loot Mayan artifacts, says Fernando Paniagua, head of Guatemala’s national cultural institute.
Thieves stole a 19-foot Mayan obelisk etched with hieroglyphics from the Xahya archeological reserve in September. The region includes the Mayan ruins of Tikal.