What was behind the protest against an archaeologist at last week’s L.A. Times Book Festival

Archaeologist Richard Hansen shows a limestone frieze found at the El Mirador archaeological site
Archaeologist Richard Hansen, right, shows a limestone frieze found at the El Mirador archaeological site in northern Guatemala on March 7, 2009.
(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

A little more than a year ago, I accompanied archaeologist Richard Hansen on one of his frequent expeditions to the El Mirador region, in the Petén jungle of Guatemala bordering Mexico, which Hansen believes was the cradle of ancient Maya civilization. It was a fascinating, occasionally terrifying, trip, and I went with him a second time last December.

On those occasions I learned how, by using LiDAR technology, Hansen and his research team had uncovered more than 964 archaeological sites and located 417 cities that were connected to each other by a complex network of roads. But today the sites are threatened with becoming engulfed by illegal activity: poaching, logging, and drug and human trafficking.

His team’s concern, Hansen told me, “is how to protect El Mirador without it falling into the hands of the big interests that roam the area, and we believe that the best way to do it is by declaring it a bi-national natural sanctuary.”


Last weekend, Hansen came from Guatemala to take part in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the USC campus. I had invited Hansen to have a conversation with me about his research so that Angelenos, including our local Mayan community, could learn about his research, including the lessons that he believes the possible fate of the ancient Maya hold for our warming planet.

“The fate of that archaeological zone is linked to the protection of the forest,” Hansen said.

But on April 23, when we been been talking for barely three minutes, a local group of masked demonstrators who claimed to be members of the Mayan community rushed the stage, seized our microphones, threw chairs, knocked over the loudspeakers and hit one of the stage crew.

The message that Hansen came to deliver was drowned out by the demonstrators, who shouted at Hansen while unveiling a banner that read, “Gringo colonizer fuera del Mirador.” The protesters accuse Hansen of trying to appropriate the cultural heritage of the Guatemalan people in order to personally profit by turning the impoverished region into an archaeological theme park.

“There is nothing more false than that,” Hansen told me as we waited behind a wall of police officers who had quickly arrived on the scene to shield us from the demonstrators. “My proposal is the exact opposite of what these people say.”

When I accompanied Hansen and his team to El Mirador last December, I asked him about previous, similar accusations by his opponents that he wants to turn the Maya complex into a touristic Disneyland. He laughed out loud.


“They have misrepresented everything,” Hansen told me. On the contrary, Hansen fears that big capital investment in the region “must be avoided at all costs.” Not only would it interfere with his own work, but he is convinced that an invasion of new highways, airports, hotels and recreation areas would destroy the surrounding jungle.

By contrast, Hansen said, he is proposing to create an environmentally sustainable sanctuary that would generate jobs for the local Indigenous communities and diminish the influence of the “mafias” that are destroying the area.

According to Hansen’s research, the El Mirador-Calakmul Basin has an extension of 3,500 square kilometers (about 1,350 square miles) in Guatemala and a similar extension in the state of Campeche in Mexico. Currently the only way to access the archaeological sites is by taking a helicopter from Las Flores, or walking almost three days from the community of Carmelita.

“To reduce the environmental impact, we proposed that a light rail be built, like the one at Disneyland, that allows access for tourists with a minimum of environmental impact,” Hansen said. “We also proposed that the communities themselves be in charge not only of the light rail, but also of all the infrastructure needed to serve tourists.”

That proposal — which was nothing more than a proposal — has earned him many enemies and spawned verbal attacks and even some death threats.

“There are many interests that have their eyes on that area, and they don’t want the area to be protected,” he told me.


I asked specifically who has threatened to kill him. “I prefer not to say,” he replied, “but there have been specific death threats against me and my family in 2001 and in 2020.”

I have toured the El Mirador area on two occasions, and the lack of surveillance by the Guatemalan government is notorious. There are only a handful of armed guards paid by the Guatemalan government to patrol the vast area.

On my last trip, one of the government guards who asked not to be identified told me that he and his colleagues frequently see aircraft unloading drugs in the area, but that they can’t do anything. “We have neither weapons nor authority to intervene,” he told me. Hansen‘s archaeological team maintains a group of 16 guards in the area to try to protect the site and reduce the impact of illegal activities.

Hansen also believes that the jungle’s natural resources could be sustainably developed for the benefit of the local communities without having to decimate the forest. Estuardo Labbé, director of the Guatemalan Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES), told me that, to preserve the forest, FARES even offered to buy trees from the logging companies operating in the area. But those offers were rejected.

“They have not wanted to, despite the fact that there is a large market in Europe and the United States for natural products from the forest,” Labbé said.

Last weekend, news of the Los Angeles demonstration spread quickly across social media. Among the commentators was the Italian Guatemalan archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, who has long been critical of Hansen’s work. He tweeted, apparently in reference to the protests, “That happens when you try to subvert the conservation of forests and the livelihoods of local communities in #Peten, #Guatemala proposing a bill in the US Senate (S.3131) to fund your plan through the back door.”


The U.S. Senate bill that Estrada-Belli referred to was the “Mirador-Calakmul Basin Maya Security and Conservation Partnership Act of 2019,” sponsored by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). Its stated goal was “to foster collaborative research efforts between the United States and local entities to create a sustainable tourism model that provides controlled, low-impact access to the archaeological sites of the Mirador-Calakmul basin in Central America, with an emphasis on providing economic opportunities to communities in and around the basin.”

“There was nothing hidden or under the table in that negotiation,” Hansen told me.

“When we spoke with members of the United States Senate, they were 13 Guatemalan representatives and the minister of culture of the government of President Jimmy Morales,” he said.

The bill, if it had been approved, would have allocated $144 million that could have been used by public or private entities to finance infrastructure projects to help preserve the jungle and sustain scientific research. To access these funds, any entity would have had to go through an open and transparent bidding process.

“It’s a real tragedy that it didn’t pass, because it would have benefited thousands of people living in very poor communities without jobs,” Hansen said.

Among those who support Hansen’s proposals are some of the people who would be most directly affected by them: members of the various Maya communities in Central America and the United States. Centuries after Spanish colonizers arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the Maya continue to struggle against poverty, discrimination and brutal oppression. They were the main targets of the civil war that devastated Guatemala between 1960 and 1996, in which hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people died.

One day before the incident at the book festival, Hansen and archaeologists Enrique Hernández, an expert on the El Mirador causeways, and Beatriz Balcarcel, a specialist on the Acropolis, met with a group of approximately 300 people of Maya origin in Los Angeles to publicize their proposals.


Edgar Leonel Chaj, vice president of Maya Visión and secretary of the Los Angeles Mayan Cultural Committee, told me, “We had doubts, and we wanted to hear from Hansen himself the details of what he is proposing and we agreed with him that it is the Mayan peoples who must decide how to protect that area and how to benefit from that cultural legacy.”

Chaj lamented the acts of violence by the protesters, who he believes are either uninformed or were paid by someone so that Hansen could not deliver his message. “They probably didn’t want his message of creating a sanctuary to get out.”

I also spoke with Nesha Xuncax, secretary of Maya Visión, and who also attended Hansen’s conversation with the Maya leaders.

“We openly asked Hansen if there was a hidden agenda in his development proposals for El Mirador, and he answered that of course not, and I believe him, because he has made each of his proposals public,” Xuncax said.

She added that there are many hidden interests in the Petén region. “Corrupt governments, those that keep the Guatemalan people in poverty, are the ones that have allied themselves with those interests,” she continued. “Hansen’s proposal at least takes into account the Mayans and their needs. It would be absurd not to support it.”

In her opinion, there is a disinformation campaign against Hansen, intended to discredit him and prevent the El Mirador area from being safeguarded.


Meanwhile, Hansen told me, another group, the Foundation for Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage (Pacunam), “has already presented concrete investment projects.”

“There is already a proposal to build highways, gas stations, hotel chains, restaurants and airports on a large scale,” he said. “Actually they are accusing me of what the big investors want to do. Unfortunately, the protesters in Los Angeles apparently do not know about these projects and are lending themselves to the exploitation of the Mayan people once again.”