A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The strange journey of a priceless Moche artifact--from Peru to Panama, to New York, and finally to Philadelphia via the New Jersey Turnpike--ended when the FBI, which recovered it in a sting operation, presented it to Peruvian ambassador Ricardo Luna at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology on July 15. The object, known as a backflap, was part of the costume worn by elite members of Moche society, which flourished on the coastal plain of northern Peru from 200 B.C. to A.D. 700. Two of the three men involved in smuggling the backflap are in jail. The third, a former consul general of Panama, has been indicted.
Made of gold, copper, and silver, the backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is 25.6 inches long and 19.6 inches wide. It consists of flat blade-shaped central piece surmounted by rattles made of matching front and back pieces. Known from tombs of Moche warrior-priests and depictions on vases, backflaps were suspended from a belt around the waist and covered the wearer's backside. Warrior-priests wore them as armor in combat and as symbols of power during rituals including the sacrifice, perhaps to insure rainfall and agricultural fertility, of captured enemy warriors. The semicircular rattle is decorated with a central figure known to archaeologists as "the Decapitator" because he is shown holding a sacrificial knife, or tumi, in one hand and a severed human head in the other. Around the edge of the rattle are ten hollow spheres which held copper pellets--placed in them before the front and back of the rattle were joined--to make noise when the wearer moved.
The backflap was recovered on October 7, 1997, by FBI agents in the parking lot of the Adam's Mark Hotel in Philadelphia. The recovery was the end move in a sting begun after two Miami, Florida, men--Orlando Mendez, 31, and Denis Garcia, 57, contacted an FBI undercover agent in an attempt to sell the backflap. Garcia had first contacted undercover FBI agents in 1994, but no deal took place because he could not get the piece smuggled into the United States. On August 8, 1997, Garcia renewed his contact and four days later he offered to sell the backflap, which he claimed came from the archaeological site of Sipán, to FBI special agent Robert K. Wittman in Philadelphia who posed as an art broker. Wittman asked Garcia to send information about the artifact, and on August 18 received a package containing photographs of it and two issues of National Geographic with articles on Peruvian sites. Garcia's asking price for the object: $1.6 million.
Garcia asked to meet face to face with Wittman to discuss the sale, and on September 9, rendezvoused with Wittman and special agent Anibal Molina at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop. At the meeting, Garcia told the agents that the backflap was in Lima, Peru, but that he could bring it into the United States with the assistance of a childhood friend who worked at a foreign consulate in New York City. As for the backflap's history, Garcia claimed, according to Wittman, that it had been "acquired by the former president of Peru, Alan García Pérez, during one of his visits" to Sipán. After leaving office in 1990, Pérez gave the backflap to an uncle, from whom Garcia said he could obtain it. Garcia also told the agents that "the backflap would be illegal in the United States but that it would become legal after it had been in the country for one year." This claim is being investigated in Peru. Meanwhile, authorities have pieced together a different story: Grave robbers looted the backflap from a tomb at Sipán on February 16, 1987, and for the next five years it was kept hidden in Sipán village to avoid confiscation by Peruvian police. In 1994 or 1995, the backflap was taken to Lima where it was purchased by a group of individuals whose identities are known but, because of the ongoing investigation, cannot be named. Near the end of September 1997, Garcia and Mendez flew to Peru to get the backflap, and Mendez arranged a wire transfer of $100,000 from Miami to Peru to acquire it. On October 1, 1997, the backflap was brought into the United States at Newark, New Jersey, and was taken to New York.
On October 2, Mendez telephoned to tell Wittman that he could pick up the backflap, which was now in New York, at a foreign consulate on the Avenue of the Americas. In a later phone conversation, Wittman persuaded Garcia and Mendez to bring the backflap to Philadelphia. This was an important break because the FBI cannot operate within a foreign consulate. Five days later they met once more at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop, where, according to Wittman's affidavit, "They showed us [Wittman and Molina] the backflap in the trunk of their car and then followed us to a hotel...in Philadelphia in the belief that an expert was located there to authenticate the artifact."
Instead of meeting an expert, the two were arrested. Afterward, Garcia told the FBI that he and Mendez had traveled to Peru to obtain the backflap, then took it to Panama. They returned to the United States, he said, through Newark, New Jersey, with the backflap, which never passed through customs.
Garcia and Mendez pled guilty in early 1998 to charges of conspiracy, interstate transportation of stolen property, and smuggling. Both received nine-month jail terms. Both are cooperating with what Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Goldman calls a continuing investigation. A June 18, 1998, federal grand jury indictment alleges that Panamanian consul general Francisco Humberto Iglesias, 54, personally shutled the ancient Moche backflap last October 1 on a flight from Panama to Newark International Airport. He is said to have stored the backflap at the Panamanian consular office at 1212 Avenue of the Americas in New York City. On October 7, he took the backflap and drove in a consular car with Garcia and Mendez to Philadelphia to meet with FBI agents who were posing as art brokers. According to Goldman, Iglesias left his post shortly after the arrests. He fled the United States on October 30 and is a federal fugitive. He is now believed to be living in Panama, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. Iglesias, who is related to Garcia by marriage, became consul general for Panama in late 1994, opening a conduit for the backflap that had not existed when Garcia initially contacted FBI.
The royal tombs at Sipán have been investigated by archaeologists since 1987, when looters despoiled at least one rich burial in clandestine excavations (see "Inside the Royal Tombs of the Moche," November/December 1992). On June 11, 1997, Peru and the United States signed a comprehensive agreement banning the importation of Peruvian artifacts into the United States without proper certification from the government of Peru. The bilateral agreement replaced an emergency import ban enacted in 1990 under the UNESCO cultural property convention that applied only to Moche artifacts from Sipán (see "New Import Agreements," September/October 1997). U.S. Attorney Michael R. Stiles said the arrests of Garcia and Mendez were among the first under the 1990 agreement.
On July 16, the backflap was put on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, as part of a temporary exhibition about the Moche civilization and the depredation of Moche sites by looters. It has now returned to Peru, where it will be displayed at the Museum of the Nation in Lima.