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Drugs, Guns and Dirt Volume 62 Number 2, March/April 2009
by Samir S. Patel

Methamphetamine fuels a new epidemic of looting


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These Anasazi human-hair leggings, which were illegally taken from federal land, started the investigation that led agents to a dealer who traded in both meth and antiquities. Only one other pair like them is known. (Courtesy Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico)

In April 2004, agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service surrounded a trailer outside Grants, New Mexico, to execute a search warrant.

A couple of weeks earlier, "N" (who asked that his real name not be used), the BLM case agent for archaeological crime in New Mexico, received a tip that an exceptionally rare pair of Anasazi leggings made of human hair had been stolen from a private home. The leggings had been found on federal land, making their sale, transport, or possession a crime. Officers quickly identified the thief and "flipped" him, that is, they got him to help catch the person to whom he sold the leggings. The agents set up a controlled buy--they had the thief repurchase the leggings using marked bills, and then obtained a search warrant to retrieve the money.

As the agents stormed the trailer, the suspect ran out the back, where the cover team stopped him at gunpoint. "What are you guys here for?" he said. "Are you here for the meth?"

The Buffalo Soldier case, in which old-school treasure hunters crossed a legal line from collecting to looting (see "The Case of the Missing Buffalo Soldier"), was an anomaly, according to N. Most of his cases come from the poverty-stricken trailer parks of Farmington, Bloomfield, and Aztec in the state's archaeology-rich northwest corner. But history buffs aren't his targets: "All I've been dealing with is tweakers," he says, using the slang term for methamphetamine addicts, who loot sites for artifacts they can sell or trade for more drugs. The locus of archaeological crime in the Southwest and across the nation is shifting into the world of drugs and guns. It is a far cry from the traditional, familial world of pot hunters and metal detectorists.

In the trailer home of the human-hair leggings suspect, N and the other agents found a pound and a half of meth (with a street value of a few hundred thousand dollars, depending on how it was cut), at least five loaded firearms, and 16 pounds of marijuana. On the kitchen counter, where he cut meth for sale, and on shelves around the house were at least 30 or 40 intact prehistoric Anasazi pots. "You could see what he was doing his business in," says N. "This was the perfect example of how the drug trade has overlapped with the illegal artifact trade."


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Federal agents investigating illegal antiquities found Anasazi pots--presumably acquired in exchange for drugs--on the same counters where methamphetamine was cut for sale. (Courtesy Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico)

Meth--crank, ice, crystal, glass--is a cheap, nasty stimulant and one of the most addictive and destructive of all drugs. It can be injected, smoked, snorted, or swallowed and causes feelings of high energy and euphoria, in addition to paranoia, delusions, and violent behavior. In many parts of the country, it is a major player in the hard-core drug culture.

In the Southwest, antiquities are what a stolen car stereo might be in New York--an untraceable commodity of the criminal underground. "This is what the West has, so this is what the West gives up for its drugs," says N. Artifacts can be looted from remote public lands near impoverished communities with acute drug problems, and there is an infrastructure of shady galleries and trading posts that can "launder" them for sale. A kind of strange synergy is developing with meth in particular that puts every archaeological site and collection at greater risk. Law enforcement officials in the Southwest even have a term for those who combine tweaking and digging--"twiggers."

The looting-meth connection is reported by federal archaeologists and law enforcement officers across the region. "It's not a straw man," says Garry Cantley, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "I've seen it."

An interagency undercover operation--code-named Silent Witness--in the late 1990s and early 2000s resulted in 12 indictments and convictions and revealed a network of twiggers linked by a single meth dealer, according to Phil Young, a former agent with the National Parks Service. It was one of the first times federal authorities saw the connection first-hand. "It was a very destructive process to the cultural resource, and of course to the individuals as well," says Young.

Blythe Bowman, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has conducted a worldwide survey of archaeologists to gauge their experience with looting. At first she knew nothing about the connection with meth, but it emerged in her data. More than a dozen archaeologists from all over the country volunteered the same information--that they had heard about meth and artifacts from local law enforcement, or had direct contact with tweakers in the field. "It's not something I went looking for," she says. "I was extraordinarily shocked. I had to read it several times." And her results did not come from the Southwest alone--reports came in from California, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oregon, Georgia, and other places. "It seems to be everywhere," she says. There were drug problems before the rise of meth, but not a particular tie to looting. The looting-meth nexus probably has much to do with the drug itself.

Meth addicts build a tolerance, so they have to take more and more--and need more money--to continue achieving a high. Meth provides a surplus of energy that tweakers need to work off, as well as increased focus and obsessive sorting behaviors: they might stare at a patch of carpet for hours, meticulously clean and reclean a kitchen, or repeatedly dismantle and rebuild home electronics. The energizing and obsessive effects make it fun, almost pleasurable, for tweakers to do the tedious work of artifact hunting. They have the steam to wander sites and dig holes for hours, the focus to scan the ground closely, and the compulsive need to find more and more. According to those who have spoken to twiggers directly, the ability to sell artifacts seems almost secondary to the addictive thrill of discovery. It makes them the perfect, tireless looting workforce.

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Over the past decade or so, the illegal antiquities trade in the Southwest has become inextricably linked with the trade in meth and guns. Meth, like the pile at left, found in a suspect's trailer home, along with at least five firearms, including the semiautomatic rifle above- is one of the most addictive and destructive drugs. (Courtesy Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico)

Twiggers, to some extent, are also changing the way sites are looted. Because of their obsessive behavior, according to Glenna Dean, former New Mexico state archaeologist, they tend to "hoover" sites, pick them clean in ways that more discerning looters would not. Online auction sites then provide a market for any stray bits of history that turn up. Because long-term meth use leads to agitation and violent behavior, and because of the ubiquity of guns in the Southwest, the discovery and policing of looting has become more dangerous. "I think you have to be a little more wary," says N. "Meth makes people completely and utterly unpredictable."

Whether they learn looting from relatives, friends, or fellow tweakers, or are recruited as a scrounging army, twiggers are changing the face of looting in the United States (Southeast Asia and Europe, where the drug is also popular, may be next). In the broad shift from the treasure hunters of the 1960s and '70s to the profit-motivated commercial looters of the 1980s and '90s--both still significant problems--the meth connection represents a third phase. It is looting with no knowledge or regard to the objects being taken, the purest commodification of the past.


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Likely taken in trade for drugs, the prehistoric pottery in the meth dealer's home could not be seized--there was no proof it was acquired illegally, a difficulty often faced by federal agents who investigate cultural resource crime. (Courtesy Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico)

Convictions for archaeological crimes are difficult to obtain even under the best circumstances. Federal officers are spread impossibly thin across the Southwest and there are hurdles to making a case, such as proving that an artifact was illegally taken from federal land. In fact, in the case of the dealer in Grants, who is serving 11 years in prison on narcotics charges, only the Anasazi leggings could be seized. The rest of the archaeological material had to be left behind, as there was no evidence it was illegally obtained (though N and his colleagues are confident it was). "It became a drug case after that," says N. In fact, many of the cases he works on come directly from narcotics task forces who stumble across artifacts when they make busts.

The involvement with drugs is a mixed bag for officers who specialize in cultural resource crime. On one hand, meth makes the looters careless and more likely to make mistakes (though paranoia may temper that). But once a suspect is caught, looting offenses take a back seat to drugs charges--violators of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act face two years in prison, but only if the value of the artifacts exceeds $500, while drugs and firearms carry much steeper penalties. Bowman and others also wonder how well-equipped narcotics officers are to notice, assess, or know what to do with antiquities they find. Some, especially federal agents in the Southwest, know to call in specialists. That is not always the case.

Drug cases can make it easier to recover artifacts--suspects relinquish them more easily when they have drug cases hanging over them--- --but also encourage prosecutors to plead out or simply drop looting cases. The result is that there is little additional risk for a tweaker or drug dealer to diversify into the antiquities trade. Furthermore, the looting-meth connection is difficult to quantify--looting alone is nearly impossible to assess accurately--complicating policy-making. And many still see looting as a victimless crime.

While the connection with meth can draw attention to the problem of looting, it also carries the implication that looting is only important to law enforcement when it intersects with wider criminal behavior, says Bowman. Meth happens to intersect with a lot of other social ills, from identity theft and child neglect to HIV infection and toxic waste (from its production), that can make looting seem to pale in comparison. According to Rusty Payne of the Drug Enforcement Agency, "This is just another horrible ripple effect of meth, unfortunately."

Samir S. Patel is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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