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Guardians of the Dead Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by Roger Atwood

Peru's citizen's brigades patrol a coastal landscape in an effort to curb a growing national industry--looting.

A lean man in his 50s with skin burnished from a lifetime working in sugar cane fields, Gregorio Becerra remembers the days when his father used to bring home ancient ceramic pots to their home in the village of Úcupe. Birds, faces, fruits, animals--the whole pantheon of Moche pottery themes stood on their living room shelf, where his father would place the perfectly preserved vessels he and his buddies dug up. "Everyone had a few pots in his house. They were nice decorations," says Becerra.

But sometime around 1990, all that changed. "It became a business," he recalls. "Outsiders came. They came from the city, and you'd see them out in the hills digging up everything they could find. They'd take it all away and sell it."

And so the modern looting industry came to little Úcupe and a hundred villages like it up and down the coast of northern Peru. People who used to excavate pots as back-lot hobby or family activity at Holy Week, as much a part of local social life as fishing or football, watched first with bafflement and then anger as professional grave robbers descended on their lands to search for pieces to supply the international market for Peruvian antiquities.

Poor, neglected, hurt by the fall of sugar prices, these villages suddenly found themselves living literally on top of a commodity hotter than sugar ever was: Moche ceramics from the first millennium A.D. that, for a time, had collectors in their thrall, fetching prices in New York that for the best pieces could surpass $30,000.

Now Becerra is the leader of his village's grupo de protección arqueológica, or la grupa, a citizens' patrol armed with binoculars, a dirt bike, one revolver, and one shotgun but whose most important weapon is the eyes and ears of people living in the village's adobe houses. The brigade's mission is to stop people from occupying the land and plundering what lies beneath it.

Some 350 people are now actively involved in the brigades. They have seized about 3,200 objects from looters. But their efforts have also pushed the problem elsewhere. Partly because of police and grupa pressure, and partly because the tastes of international collectors have changed, the professionals are moving south.

"It's tough working in the north these days. You can get arrested," says 23-year-old Robin. In Italy he would be a tombarolo, in Guatemala an estelero; in Peru he's a huaquero, a professional grave robber who has been digging up tombs almost every night since his early teens. Robin and his buddies now work mostly in the Cañete area south of Lima, where there are no citizens' patrols, less police interference, and abundant ancient textiles of the kind that bring big bucks on the international art market--$10,000 for good ones, a quarter of a million for the very best.

After some persuading, he and his two friends finally agreed to take me along on a nighttime raid. I told them I wouldn't buy anything or join in the digging. I just wanted to watch and take notes. We took a bus and got out at an empty stretch of highway some 80 miles south of Lima. We walked for nearly an hour across cotton fields illuminated by moonlight. Eventually we came to a tree. About 100 feet away rose the Inka-era huaca they were about to assault.

Roger Atwood is a journalist writing on the antiquities trade with a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. He can be reached at

Further Reading
   Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (London; Duckworth Ltd., 2000), by C. Renfrew is a short, impassioned, elegantly written account that lays bare how the antiquities trade and irresponsible museums are slowly snuffing out the world's remaining archaeological heritage. The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property (Albuquerque; University of New Mexico Press, 1999), edited by P. M. Messenger gives all views on the looting debate--collectors, curators, and cultural property scolds. "Culture Without Context," the newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, U.K. is available online at K.E. Meyer's The Plundered Past (New York; Atheneum, 1973) is a classic exposé of the illicit antiquities trade. Trade in Illicit Antiquities (Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2001), edited by Neil Brodie, Jennifer Doole, and Colin Renfrew, is an up-to-date account of the damage caused by looters and those who pay them.
   For more on Peruvian archaeology and Sipan, see Royal Tombs of Sipán (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 1993), a lavishly illlustrated volume by W. Alva and C. B. Donnan. M. E. Moseley's The Incas and their Ancestors (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001) is a brilliant, hypnotically readable account of the sweep of Andean civilization before the Spaniards. Lords of Sipan: A True Story of Pre-Inca Tombs, Archaeology and Crime (New York: Henry Holt, 1992), by S. D. Kirkpatrick is an entertaining page-turner on the smuggling of the Sipán hoard and Alva's excavations.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America