Road Building and Looting of Maya sites in Southern Campeche, Mexico post-1990


Excerpt about trafficking Mesoamerican antiquities from a 2020 book chapter

The following is an extract from a chapter I wrote with Simon Mackenzie in the book “Organized Crime and Corruption Across Borders Exploring the Belt and Road Initiative” edited by T. Wing Lo, D. Siegel, and S.I. Kwok. The greater chapter is about looting risk to archaeological sites in the wake of major infrastructure works and the book itself has a strong focus on China…and that is my concern. I wrote this section about looting in Southern Campeche in Mexico after about 1990 and I am afraid it might get a bit lost in a book about China.

So here it is for anyone interested in antiquities trafficking in Mesoamerica and looting of Maya sites. You can get the uncorrected proof of the chapter here:

Transit risks

Extract from: Mackenzie, S. and D. Yates (2020), “Crime, Corruption, and Collateral Damage: Large Infrastructure Projects as a Threat to Cultural Heritage”, in T. Wing Lo, D. Siegel, and S. I. Kwok (eds), Organized Crime and Corruption Across Borders Exploring the Belt and Road Initiative. London: Routledge.

As well as affecting the sites where cultural objects of archaeological interest will be found, the OBOR initiative will provide transportation opportunities to the range of interested actors who thrive around international illicit commodity markets. These are the networks which connect local looters with local or regional dealers and on to the higher level brokers of the international art scene, eventually reaching an upper echelon of world dealers, collectors, museums, and auction houses, who turn them into the priceless “antiquities” which are fought over by competitive buyers. Antiquities can be large and cumbersome and their removal is facilitated by the ability to bring vehicles and machinery to looting sites. So we can ask: To what extent does the construction of new roads, in making the use of such equipment viable, elevate the risks of looting at cultural heritage sites? To answer this question, we can look to other cases where infrastructure development has had an impact on looting. The effects of increasing accessibility to remote, unpopulated, and archaeologically rich regions have been recorded in other locations, for example, in the Maya region of Central America.

In this heavily looted region, the remoteness of deep-jungle archaeological sites had an effect on both the protection and the destruction of heritage. With few or no roads, resources, or sites of habitation, it has been difficult for the governments of countries such as Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico to provide adequate protection for known Maya sites or to discover and secure unknown sites in advance of looters ( Yates, 2015a , 2015b ). That said, inaccessibility has served as a barrier to looting as well. Looting in some locations was limited by what could be removed from a site on mule-back well into the later parts of the 20th century.

Site-looting methods were developed to mitigate the jungle’s impenetrability. Take, for example, the elaborately carved, solid stone monuments called stela that were particularly valued on the international antiquities market. The largest of these monuments is 10.6 meters tall and weighs 65 tons, and many are in the 1.5 to 2.5 meter range – far too large to remove from the jungle. In response, looters at many sites “thinned” stela, using rock saws to remove a few inches of the sculptures’ carved surfaces or faces. They then further sawed the faces into smaller blocks for easier transport. A careful observer will note that the Maya stela in foreign museums are, as a result of the looting process, only a few inches thick and are reconstructed from these sawed blocks. The mutilated remains of the rest of the looted stela are left scattered at archaeological sites.

At many sites, the sheer size of Maya monuments prevented their looting, the jungle serving as a barrier against transporting these antiquities from remote locations. Major and marketable artworks have been uncovered by looters and left in place due to the impossibility of organizing removal. For example, in 2001 at the site of San Bartolo in a still-inaccessible portion of Guatemala’s Péten Department, archaeologist William Saturno chanced upon one of the most compelling Maya mural sequences known to exist ( Powell, 2002 ). He found the murals within a looters trench, exposed by illicit diggers but not extracted. Although Maya murals are extremely rare, and although Mesoamerican murals have commanded high prices on the international market, the San Bartolo sequence was left by looters who likely could not figure out a way to remove them without a road or heavy equipment. Instead, the looters continued past the mural ( Powell, 2002 ), tunneling to find smaller, more portable antiquities that could be carried out.

Broadly speaking, and with some notable exceptions, contemporary looting of archaeological sites in the Maya region appears to be closely related to development, both legal development and otherwise. Sites that are more easily reached because of their proximity to roads, tracks, or settlements and sites that are located near exploitable jungle resources (e.g., hardwoods, the gum of the chicle tree) have experienced the heaviest looting over the years. Sites that are far from occupation or development or far from marketable jungle resources have, on a number of occasions, escaped the heaviest looting.

To explore the connection between accessibility, particularly road construction, and antiquities looting further, we will concentrate on one particular region of the Maya world: the jungle areas of the southern portion of the Mexican state of Campeche. This region skirts the border with Guatemala; it is extremely archaeologically rich and was once sparsely populated and inaccessible. In 1984, Mexico began the construction of Highway 186 between Villahermosa in Tabasco and Chetumal in Quintana Roo, straight through this portion of Campeche. Prior to that, access to many of the known archaeological sites in the region was via undeveloped tracks off the small road that predated the highway or, in some cases, approaching them from Guatemala to the south. For example, access to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Calakmul, among the largest of the large Maya metropolises, was via a 65 kilometer undeveloped track that, during the rainy season, might take three to four days to pass over ( Fletcher, 2004 ).

Prior to road construction, the sites in this region were certainly looted; however, inaccessibility served as a limiting factor, preventing some forms of looting and forcing the development of artifact weight and size reduction techniques. At Calakmul and at nearby sites, stela were thinned in the looting process before transport out of the jungle as described earlier, leaving a trail of destroyed stela pieces at the site. In 1968, at a site 56 kilometers east of Calakmul called Placeres, looters and traffickers resorted to constructing an airstrip in the jungle and landed a small plane to remove a large Maya temple facade, an operation that reportedly cost $80,000 ( Meyer, 1973 , p. 22). One of the people involved in the Placeres looting claims to have also looted tombs at Calakmul at this time (personal communication, 2014), presumably because the plane provided a rare opportunity to remove artifacts from the region.

Though the looting that occurred at Maya sites in the 1960s and 1970s is more extensively described within academic literature, there is evidence that heavy looting of sites in the region occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. This was after Highway 186 brought a significant influx of people and increased accessibility to the region and when the establishment of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve along the border with Campeche in 1990 caused an intensification of hardwood extraction in that part of the jungle. It appears that in the years just before and just after the creation of the reserve, wood extractors made one last large push to illegally remove valuable woods such as mahogany before further protections were put in place. Logging of this sort brought people deep into the jungle, put them in contact with vulnerable archaeological sites, and provided an extraction route out following the timber.

For example, the site of Uxul, 34 kilometers southwest of Calakmul, is thought to have been primarily looted in the 1980s and 1990s in association with a period of illicit hardwood extraction in the region that made the site more accessible ( Grube et al., 2012 ). This period also corresponds to the construction of Highway 186, and the construction in 1993–1994 of a passable earth road leading from the highway to Calakmul, though it is unclear when exactly Uxul became accessible from this northern route. In contrast, the site of Oxpemul, recorded in 1934 and rediscovered by archaeologists in 2004, did not experience the “intense and merciless looting” of more accessible sites in the region ( Benavides, 2005 ). “Covered by jungle for 70 years more” after its discovery, the site is located near neither occupation nor sites of hardwood or gum extraction (ibid.). It was protected by inaccessibility.

The site of Balamku offers an example of increased accessibility to a site providing opportunity for looting. Located a mere 3 kilometers north of Highway 186, and thus about the same distance from the road that predated the highway, the site went unnoticed by authorities until 1990, despite featuring several monumental temple groups. The looting of the site appears to correspond to the opening up of the area via the highway: The site was discovered by archaeologist Florentino García Cruz only after hearing reports of an unknown site being actively looted ( Arnauld et al., 1998 ). While it cannot be determined if Balamku experienced looting before the construction of the highway, and it is likely it did, increased accessibility to the region appears to have been a factor in intensifying the looting to the point that the authorities were alerted.

The most recent reports of looting and site destruction in southern Campeche at the time of writing concern archaeological sites that are considered extremely accessible. In the late 2000s/early 2010s, Highway 186 was converted into a multilane highway, greatly increasing the number of vehicles that pass through the region and bringing an influx of tourism to the more accessible sites along its path. The populations of the small towns along the route have increased as well, potentially putting pressure on archaeological sites that we might assume would be protected, and not just for the previously discussed looting of artifacts for the market. The looting of ancient stone monuments for road and other construction fill is a perennial problem in this region, and it is a problem that is limited to archaeological sites that are accessible by trucks and earth-movers.

In 2016, it was reported that a tomb was looted at the archaeological site of Xpujil ( Yucatan Times, 2017 ), which is situated one kilometer west of the town of the same name and hosts full-time guards. The looters were also found to be using a three-ton truck to transport stone from the site back to the village, presumably for construction (Jorge Alberto Aguilar Montero, quoted in Crónica de Campeche, 2017 ). Perhaps more surprising, the large and significant site of Becán, a flagship tourist-friendly site located only 8 kilometers from the village of Xpujil, experienced two looting attempts in 2016. That year authorities also logged looting complaints at accessible regional sites such as Tigre Treste (at Calakmul) and Hormiguero, where sites were damaged specifically to gain stone for construction or road expansion, and cases of graffiti at Hormiguero and the site of Chicanná. In 2015, there were 14 looting or site destruction cases logged in Campeche, again at largely accessible sites ( Crónica de Campeche, 2017 ).

These examples of looting at Maya sites provide a window into the relationship between antiquities looting, organized crime, and infrastructure development in terms of simple opportunity theory. Where road development results in a substantial increase in the ease of completing a crime script ( Cornish, 1994 ), such as it does in the case of opening up previously relatively hard-to access archaeological and temple sites, practically oriented crime theories like rational choice, routine activities, and opportunity predict an increase in the levels of the crime in question. For rational choice theory, this would be a matter of reducing the effort required to complete the crime ( Clarke, 1992 ). For routine activities theory, it might be considered a matter of increasing the “suitability” of the target ( Clarke and Felson, 1993 ). From the perspective of opportunity theory, we might expect that to the extent that “opportunity makes the thief” ( Felson and Clarke, 1998 ), increased site access not only will grease the wheels of more dedicated organized criminals but also will generate looting by less committed individuals and groups who are tempted by the new possibilities that present themselves. So transit developments provide a backbone for trafficking crimes. This backbone supports serious organized criminals who may have committed the crimes anyway, although not with such ease or perhaps not in such volume, and it also supports and to an extent even generates the opportunistic crimes of locals and tourists as they pass by, and through, cultural heritage sites.