Black Market for Mayan Artifacts Still Thrives in Guatemala

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Guatemalan authorities carried out raids at a shop selling illegally sourced artifacts, renewing focus on the country’s struggles to stamp out the remains of a once-flourishing black market.

In February, the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes of Cultural Heritage recovered pre-Hispanic pottery as well as obsidian and flint blades at a shop in the northern town of Flores, El Periodico reported

Flores is a colonial town that sits near the heart of ancient Mayan ruins like Tikal and Uaxactun. Both of those sites are regulated for tourism and scientific study, but thousands more continue to go almost entirely unguarded.

In 2018, officials carried out six raids related to archeological looting, according to an Attorney General’s Office investigator who spoke with InSight Crime. They also managed to reclaim Mayan artifacts that had made it all the way to an auction in France.

SEE ALSO: Only a Fraction of Mexico’s Stolen Cultural Antiquities Are Recovered

In 2013, Carlos Mera, Guatemala’s then-director of cultural patrimony, said that nearly all of the country’s 4,000 archaeological sites have had items looted.

InSight Crime Analysis

Raids on local store owners may not be enough to protect Guatemala’s Mayan sites from looting, or to keep antiquities stolen from them off the black market. 

Mayan sites were mostly plundered between the 1960s and 80s, when a wave of pre-Colombian exhibitions in the United States increased demand from museums and private collectors, an expert with La Ruta Maya Foundation told InSight Crime. At the same time, Guatemala’s civil war forced some archeologists to flee excavation sites, leaving them exposed to impoverished rural communities in search of additional sources of income.

Looters, known locally as “huecheros,” cut into the sides of Mayan ruins housing jade, tablets and ceramic pottery, among other objects. Then they sold the items to intermediaries in Mexico and Belize. The objects were smuggled in trucks and helicopters along established agricultural and military transport routes. 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

“We never knew if they made it into museums,” one former huechero, who has robbed between 15 and 20 archeological sites throughout Guatemala and southern Mexico, told InSight Crime. “But I would bet that a majority did. That’s why they were being bought.”

The black market today mostly comprises small pieces like shells, jewelry and bones featuring detailed carvings and calligraphy. These are easier to sneak through airport security and other travel checkpoints. It’s also easy to find such items in local shops, like the one raided in Flores. 

Today, the origin of cultural artifacts is becoming an increasingly hot-button issue for museums and auction houses, and international demand for large, new pieces appears to be slowing.

Current law designates all of Guatemala’s archeological artifacts as government property. But collectors can sidestep legal risk because once a piece is entered into a national registry — regardless of how it was obtained — it becomes legal to have in their possession, according to a legal source who spoke to InSight Crime. 

Guatemalan authorities step in when someone tries to remove, sell or transport one of these pieces without proper registration, a crime that could result in penalties as harsh as 15 years in prison, as well as a fine of 10,000 quetzales (about $1,300).

But the Ministry of Culture and Sports, which is tasked with combatting the archeological black market, has one of the smallest annual budgets of any agency in Guatemala. In 2019 it received under 137 million quetzales ($17.8 million) for the protection and restoration of cultural patrimony. The Ministry of National Defense, meanwhile, spent about six times that just on administrative costs. 

Mexico, by comparison, budgeted 800 million pesos (roughly $43 million) last year for the study, protection and preservation of cultural sites, many of them Mayan.

Without the means to protect such sites in Guatemala, the trafficking of Mayan antiquities will likely continue, with small-scale traders robbing the country piece by piece.

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