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Looters plague Guatemalan city

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NARANJO, Guatemala, (Reuters) -- Deep in the jungle shrouding the Belize-Guatemala border, archeologists are in a race against looters as they seek to unlock the mysteries of the vine-choked pyramids and temples of the ancient Mayan city Naranjo.

Naranjo was built while Europe was still struggling through the Dark Ages, at the peak of a 600-year burst of Mayan creativity that saw the construction of cities, pyramids and temples from El Salvador to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Carved stone stellae from Naranjo reveal a warlike dynasty, at one point led by a 5-year-old king, that frequently fought with neighboring city states.

Over 1,000 years after it was mysteriously abandoned, a new battle is under way for control of Naranjo, this time between archeologists and gangs of looters hungry for the jade artifacts and delicately painted ceramics the Maya buried alongside their dead kings.

In August, a group of government workers led by archeologist Fredi Baldizon stumbled across tools and a large cavity in a root-entangled pyramid at the site.

The pyramid was in the process of being robbed and the looters were not far away. "When we heard them returning, we scared them off by banging together the blades of our machetes," said Baldizon.

Oscar Quintana, an architect in charge of the Naranjo conservation project, said archeologists there are playing "a game of cat and mouse," with looters who dig approximately 20 trenches every month.

Naranjo is in an area commonly used by marijuana growers, illegal loggers and wildlife smugglers. Stolen artifacts are taken along trails left by loggers, often into Belize, where they are hidden on ships and exported to Europe and the United States.


The lawlessness of the region exposes workers to intimidation and in recent weeks they have received written death threats warning them against refilling looter trenches.

"It is frightening working there," Baldizon said, "They know who you are. The area is overrun with all kinds of people. You never know who you are getting involved with."

In 1996, the level of intimidation became so great that the whole Naranjo excavation project was suspended. Archeologists made only fleeting visits to the site accompanied by troops.

Although parts of the site remain too dangerous to work in, Quintana decided in 2001 to restart the dig without the backing of the security forces. "We had to go back. Too much was being lost," he said.

Arthur Demarest, an archeologist from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee doing field work in Guatemala, recently helped villagers and government undercover agents recover a stolen Maya altar from drug traffickers in the area.

The elaborately carved 600-pound stone altar dates from 796, when it was placed on the royal ball court at Cancuen, site of one of the largest royal palaces ever found.

Based on information from Demarest, Guatemalan security forces staged raids that captured the altar and its robbers.

The modern era of looting began when 19th century explorers started to rediscover the ancient sites and ship their discoveries back to Europe.

In the 1960s and 1970s under the cover of Guatemala's long civil war, looting developed into a very profitable and extensive export business.

"Several Guatemalan presidents started their private collections using state equipment ... Military commissioners used army vehicles, customs exemptions and the air force to remove objects," said looting expert and archeologist Sofia Paredes Maury.

Ramon Peralta spent 16 years as a professional looter and now works in forest protection.

Although looters themselves only receive a fraction of the value of a piece, a professional like Peralta was can earn upward of $4,000 a month.

The irregular income offered by forest industries such as gum tapping, the lack of police control and the sheer number of ruins all combine to make looting an attractive, though dangerous, prospect.

"In the old days many died in fights between groups. There is also the risk that a tomb will collapse on you. My friends, thank God, saved me several times." Peralta said.

He argued that looting plays an important role in bringing artifacts into the public realm and even that it saves delicate ceramics from deterioration on the forest floor.

Archeologist Paredes is less positive. "The really sad thing is that a looted artifact has been ripped out of its archeological context, and we will never know where it came from or what it means," she said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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