What is Guatemala doing to protect its cultural heritage?

Effigy artifact from Guatemala
Stuart Rome

In Guatemala, the country’s Ministry of Culture protects the country’s most prominent sites with guards. Government-sponsored archaeological programs locate, register and excavate additional sites. Joint America-Guatemalan excavations at sites like Waka —key in the power struggle between Maya superpowers Tikal and Calakmul —also discourage looting. But newly discovered sites are often looted by the time archaeologists arrive, or can be plundered by well-armed teams when the research season ends. In many cases, the looters operate from highly organized camps in the forest.

There have been successes in the fight against looting in Guatemala: in 2003, Guatemalan undercover agents, archaeologists from America’s Vanderbilt University, and local villagers working together were able to recover a 600-pound stone Maya altar stolen from a royal ball court at the site of Cancuén. Near that same site in 2006, however, a rare and beautifully carved stone box that may have once contained a written Maya codex, was reported stolen by looters.

Vessel artifact from Guatemala
Diego Molina

The problem remains the illicit international market, experts say. Guatemalan looters are only feeding the demand of private foreign collectors. “They’re working for five or ten dollars a day to find all these things that end up selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Brent Woodfill, a Vanderbilt archaeologist, told National Geographic in 2006. A renewed MOU, therefore, allows the U.S. government to put legal pressure on the smugglers and American buyers that make looting lucrative and contribute to the destruction of the Guatemalan past.

Christopher Heaney, journalist and SAFE volunteer. Additional research: Elizabeth Gilgan, Elvira Giraldez, Matthew Piscitelli.

For more information about CPAC, please visit the U.S. State Department International Cultural Property Protection web site.