- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2007

LIMA, Peru — Smugglers are sapping Peru’s ancient heritage as statues, gold finery and other treasures are stolen to meet orders on the Internet or be sold on the street, Peruvian and international authorities say.

Peru is the country worst hit in the region by thefts of ancient objects — far more than Bolivia and Mexico, two other nations with a heritage of pre-Colombian antiquities, Interpol official Eladio Zamudio says.

The international police agency is investigating several cases of stolen art objects from Peru that have passed through the country’s porous borders to end up in Europe, the United States and elsewhere in South America.

The head of the National Culture Institute, Cecilia Bakula, has denounced “the organized gangs that are rampant not only in drugs but in stealing cultural heritage.”

In one symbolic case, police in March caught thieves trying to sell an old flag to an antiquarian in Lima. It was the same one the Peruvian leader Jose de San Martin had used when proclaiming independence from Spain in 1820.

The western South American nation is rich in antiquities from before the Inca empire, which ruled much of the region for hundreds of years up to the 16th century, as well as artworks dating from the subsequent Spanish colonial times.

Peru’s soil yields numerous fossils and archaeological finds — many of which are looted by so-called huaqeros, smugglers who swoop onto remote sites at night. This carries a five-year jail term, but looters often get away with a fine.

Authorities say they lack the power and resources to fight back.

“It’s difficult to guard more than 10,000 archaeological sites,” says Blanca Alva, the institute’s official in charge of defending heritage. Among Peru’s private museums, about 300 do not have their holdings inventoried, she adds.

After looting, the first point of sale is often children hawking items on the street to tourists. These valuables have varied from antique fabrics to 6-inch-long teeth from a megalodon, a type of prehistoric shark.

Orders for objects also come from the Internet, Interpol says. A museum near Lima removed from its displays a wooden statue of the mythological god Pachacamac, fearing it would be stolen after offers to buy it were made online.

In remote parts of the Andes Mountains, Miss Alva says, colonial-era churches have been stripped of their finery. In the central Mantaro Valley, chapels are missing their altarpieces, pictures and other religious treasures.

“Everything has been stolen, including the gold and silver chalices,” Miss Alva says.

The stolen goods are trafficked far afield. Interpol is tracking cases of items that have wound up in Belgium, France, Spain, Brazil, Uruguay and the United States.

Several years ago, an altar weighing almost half a ton disappeared from the church of Challapampa in the south-eastern city of Puno and was smuggled across the Bolivian border. It wound up in a Texas art gallery but was returned when Peruvian authorities intervened.

A golden headdress dating from at least as far back as the eighth century and valued at $1 million was recovered in London last year.

Also last year, customs agents seized 114 envelopes containing the separated contents of a 397-page 16th-century manuscript stolen from Peru’s national archives, according to John Alarcon Herrera, head of the postal customs authority.

Other smugglers’ tricks include painting over colonial-era pictures — favorite canvases include works from the so-called Cuzco movement of religious painting.

Antique pots, even while being smuggled, are sometimes used as containers for cocaine.

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