Guardians of Peru's Treasures Stake Out Post Office to Block Smuggling

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LIMA, Peru -- Gladiz Collatupa, an archaeologist, once stashed six mummies at her parents' house for safe keeping. That was when she dug for artifacts in the dirt of Peru, rich with the leavings of past cultures like the Inca and the Moche. Now she digs through packages at the post office instead, searching for ancient treasure being smuggled out of the country.

Ms. Collatupa and a colleague, Sonia Rojas, an art historian, are a pair of Indiana Joneses in reverse. Instead of swashbuckling around the world looting ruins, they try to keep Peru's ancient riches from being spirited out of the country by mail.

"With less danger," noted Ms. Rojas, a petite woman in glasses with a keen interest in colonial Peruvian paintings. She wears a khaki vest with a large button that says, "I defend my cultural heritage."

The women work for Peru's Ministry of Culture as part of a program aimed at stopping the illegal export of valuable historic and prehistoric objects and artwork, a depletion that began nearly 500 years ago with the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire and has never stopped.

Last year, the post office team, which Ms. Collatupa joined in August, replacing another archaeologist, made 22 seizures, totaling dozens of items. They included pre-Columbian textiles and pottery, fossils, a 19th-century saber, a 19th-century oil painting of St. Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, a shipment of 56 books and other texts belonging to the National Library, and a group of religious and legal documents from the 18th century.

This year, they have made seven seizures of items that include old coins and replicas of pre-Columbian dolls that incorporate ancient cloth looted from archaeological sites.

"No matter how small a piece is, it's important," said Ms. Collatupa, who has learned to distinguish pre-Hispanic textiles by the way they feel -- smoother and softer with age -- and by the patterns in the weaving. "They are part of our identity."

Many of the items are bound for the United States, mailed by tourists who may be unaware they are breaking the law. But others are shipped by dealers and collectors who know exactly what they are doing.

Mostly, Ms. Rojas, 36, and Ms. Collatupa, 32, do not confront the bad guys. But in March, a collector who had tried to mail a silver coin minted in Peru in 1838 to Canada showed up at the postal facility to complain. The coin was a fake, he said, and therefore should not have been seized.

The words "Firm for the Union" were stamped on the coin, and Ms. Rojas stood her ground: her examination showed that it was genuine, and it stayed in the country. Like most other items seized at the post office, it was added to the collection of the National Museum.

Still, there is little incentive for unscrupulous traffickers to obey the law. A Sotheby's auction of pre-Columbian works, held in Paris in March, took in more than $13 million for about 150 items. The auction occurred despite claims by the governments of Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica that many of the objects had been illegally removed from their countries.

And the penalties are relatively minor. Since 2007, no one has been sent to prison for cultural trafficking in Peru, and only five people have been given the maximum fine of about $1,900, at the current exchange rate, according to Blanca Alva, who is in charge of the Culture Ministry's efforts to stop trafficking.

"Compare that to the prices that our pieces bring" in auctions abroad, Ms. Alva said.

Ms. Alva has also stepped up efforts to recover objects that made it out of the country, often many years ago. Last month, the Foreign Ministry announced the recovery of 125 pieces from the United States, Mexico, Switzerland and Chile, including pre-Columbian ceramic pieces, a 17th-century manuscript, colonial paintings and a silver receptacle for carrying the eucharist that was stolen from a church in Cuzco.

In 2011, Yale University began returning hundreds of artifacts carted away decades ago from Machu Picchu, the famous Incan citadel.

All of this taps into powerful notions of national pride and a lingering resentment over the colonial past. Such themes may have added resonance today in Peru, a country with a strong sense of its heritage, where a decade of sustained economic growth has ignited hopes for greater recognition and influence in the region and around the world.

Ms. Alva said she cried when the Machu Picchu artifacts came back.

"It's the feeling that something is being made whole, something that belongs to me," she said. "It is a little humiliating for us to feel that our heritage is being sold for a price."

The highlight of Ms. Collatupa's archaeological career came in 2006 when she worked for a power company building a generating station in Lima -- and excavated the six mummies that were exposed during construction. The mummies, from the Ichma culture, from about the 15th century, were wrapped in cloth so that only the tops of their heads poked out. Ms. Collatupa could see their skulls and some hair and feathered headdresses. "It was very exciting," she said.

There was nowhere at the construction site to keep the mummies, so she brought the desiccated remains home to her parents' house. They were not exactly the kind of visitors they had hoped their daughter would be bringing home.

"My parents didn't like it," she said. The unusual houseguests stayed for about a month in boxes in the garage before leaving to find a permanent home at a local museum.

While no one has been caught trying to mail mummies out of the country on their watch, Ms. Collatupa and Ms. Rojas have had some exciting finds at the post office too, including a 16th-century Incan ceramic cup and colonial oil paintings. Ms. Collatupa sometimes dreams about the big score, like recovering an object stolen from a Peruvian museum.

But mostly their job seems like a never-ending and extremely frustrating backward Christmas. They are forever opening and then rewrapping packages meant for other people.

In the high-ceilinged postal sorting center where they work, packages arrive down big spiral chutes like water slides at an amusement park. And the sticky chirp of clear packing tape peeling off the roll is never far away.

On a recent morning, the women sorted through a load of several dozen packages leaving the country, arranged in piles by destination: 14 to the United States, 11 to Spain, 8 to Japan, 5 to France.

They decided to inspect a box headed to Japan because it was mailed from Cuzco, a popular tourist town that is a center for the black market in antiquities. The packing list said it contained dolls, a red flag because unscrupulous artisans often use scraps of pre-Hispanic textiles looted from tombs to make dolls that may be offered to tourists as real Incan artifacts.

A customs agent slit open the tape on the package, and Ms. Rojas and Ms. Collatupa donned latex gloves to remove the contents: a Peruvian national soccer team shirt, a purple down vest, a floppy cloth hat and a plastic bag filled with what appeared to be the dolls mentioned in the packing slip: a couple of dozen finger puppets made of brightly colored, synthetic -- not pre-Columbian -- yarn.

They replaced the items and closed the box with a strip of yellow tape indicating it had been opened by customs authorities.

As the women work, a dog is led around to sniff packages for drugs. Many more packages are opened by customs agents looking for drugs (which are found every day, usually in small quantities) than by the women searching for cultural contraband. But sometimes the two types of searches overlap. In February customs agents looking for drugs opened a box that contained 11 rare silver coins minted in the 16th century.

"You never know what you're going to find," Ms. Rojas said. "Every box could contain a surprise."

Andrea Zarate contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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