Peruvian Mummy’s Return Points to Artifact Trafficking in LatAm

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Bolivia returned a trafficked pre-Columbian mummy to Peru to mark the signing of an anti-artifact smuggling treaty, highlighting the profitable trade in stolen antiquities in the hemisphere.

On November 6, a 700-year-old mummy from southern Peru which had been stolen by artifact traffickers was returned to its country. The mummified body of a toddler from a late pre-Columbian society was seized by customs officials in 2009 in Bolivia, after a buyer attempted to have it shipped to France. The mummy was in relatively good condition, although the smugglers had apparently replaced a damaged leg with the leg of another toddler in an attempt to raise its value on the black market.

In Peru, the mummy has come to be seen as a symbol of attacks against the country’s cultural heritage. Culture Minister Luis Peirano called the case “an example of the sacking, the violation of our patrimony and all our inheritance.” There is a thriving illicit trade in Peruvian historical artifacts, which are looted and sold to largely foreign dealers.

Telesur reported that at the ceremony marking the mummy’s return, Peirano and his Bolivian counterpart, Pablo Groux, signed a bilateral agreement aimed at preventing the sale of illegally obtained archaeological goods through greater cooperation with academic and archaeological organizations. Both countries are hotspots of illicit artifact trafficking. The government of Peru estimates that some $18 million in archaeological artifacts are stolen in the country annually, and in recent years it has been attempting to crack down on the phenomenon. In Bolivia, officials have warned about the existence of “mafias” dedicated to the trade, with links throughout South America and Europe.

InSight Crime Analysis

While its value pales in comparison to that of arms or drug trafficking, the illegal trade in historical artifacts is a significant source of income for transnational organized crime in the hemisphere. According to Interpol, illicit antiquity trafficking earns more than $4 billion a year worldwide, while United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) puts the figure twice as high, at $8 billion. While regional breakdowns of these figures are not available, Latin America, with its rich pre-Columbian and colonial history, is a major hub for the trade.

Much like the illegal drug trade, the illicit artifact market in the region has a supply chain marked by poor individual actors at the bottom and large, international criminal networks at the top. In parts of Latin America where historical relics are commonly found, entire communities subsist by digging for artifacts and looting archaeological sites. According to the research of anthropologist David Matsuda, dating from the 1990s, Guatemala and El Salvador between them are home to some 500,000 such subsistence diggers, known as “huecheros,” while there are 250,000 in the north Mexican state of Jalisco alone.

As Interpol Bolivia’s Alex Rios told La Razon newspaper, the artifacts are usually looted by locals who sell them to black market artifact buyers within the country, who then sell them to transnational criminal groups. These organizations transport them, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes, via the same techniques and smuggling corridors used to move guns and drugs. According to Rios, the most popular South American countries in this market are Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, due to these countries’ rich cultural heritage.

As InSight Crime has reported, officials in Mexico are also concerned about a boom in illicit artifact trafficking, particularly the looting of Spanish colonial-era religious art. In the small state of Tlaxcala alone, some 600 pieces of art have been stolen from churches and other religious sites over the past decade.

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