Monday, November 15, 2010

Patrimony and Cocaine

Customs agents at the Ramon Villeda Morales airport found cocaine inside a replica of a prehispanic figure sent for shipment out of the country last week.

Nearly 2 kilos of cocaine were enclosed inside the object, part of a group of 27 packed in two boxes.

On November 13, El Tiempo reported that the alleged sender had been identified as Ismael Ramírez, resident in San Pedro Sula, while leaving open the possibility that his name was used without his authorization.

The package was being shipped to an individual in Barcelona, Spain, named variously "Salomón Guerra" or "Salomón Porra".

The replica containing the cocaine in this shipment was described as made of a mixture of cement and stone, about two feet tall, and judging from the picture in El Tiempo, is a somewhat bad impression of one of the much larger stelae of Copan.

Mixtures of stone and cement have been used with greater and lesser degrees of skill to make replicas of stelae for quite some time; the best such work is actually on view in the site of Copan itself, where many of what look like original sculptures are actually replicas prepared under the supervision of international archaeologists. The object involved in this drug shipment is clearly of quite another order of artistry.

Another 26 small statues made of modern composite material were included in the shipment. Similar objects, often still wet and covered with hastily applied black or green paint, are commonly offered to tourists who visit the archaeological ruins at Copan by vendors outside the park.

The amount of cocaine involved-- two packages totalling two kilos-- is relatively small. What is most troubling about this news is that the authority of the Honduran national patrimony agency is being actively exploited to try to facilitate the export of drugs. Paperwork accompanying the shipment was supposedly from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, authorizing the pieces, from the Copan region, to leave the country.

Indeed, the article in Tiempo credits airport staff as originally questioning the papers from the Institute because they suspected the objects were actual antiquities being smuggled out against Honduran law, under the guise of replicas.

Speaking strictly as a professional, the objects illustrated in news articles shouldn't have caused even a moment of uncertainty about their legitimacy. They are tchotchkes, souvenirs, and my only question would be why anyone in Spain would want to import them.

Not that the linkage of Precolumbian artifacts and drugs is entirely novel. Archaeological materials and drugs seem to circulate through the same channels. There is a thriving trade in illegally exported Honduran antiquities, and in recent years, theft of colonial art has been especially heated, again for illegal exportation. To quote Neil Brodie, an expert in the illegal traffic in antiquities,
Direct links between drugs trafficking and antiquities smuggling in Central America for instance have been reported on more than one occasion. In Belize and Guatemala jungle airstrips are used by criminals to smuggle out drugs and antiquities...while at the receiving end a smuggler’s plane arriving in Colorado from Mexico was found to contain 350 lb of marijuana and many thousands of dollars-worth of Pre-Columbian antiquities.
Press coverage to date leaves open the question of when the drugs were inserted in the replica stela, and whether this was done by the original maker or after the object was acquired. The former, obviously, would indicate a more serious tie between the cultural heritage industry and drug smuggling. But even if, as we hope, the smugglers in this case simply seized opportunistically on a cheap, easy to find, hollow container for drugs, the case is a troubling one.

1 comment:

Carlos Tower said...

It is a strange destination, given that Spain usually has the cheapest cocaine in Europe as it is the transit point to the continent out of South America (a line of cocainee in Spain can be as little as just slightly more than a glass of wine in a decent eatery). The street value of 2 kilos of likely low-grade cocaine in Spain isn't really that much money. Perhaps not to surprising since the entire plan is so amateurish. Years ago, maybe mid-1990's, there was a case of replica religious artifacts containing drugs being sent abroad. That, too, was foiled by airline employees when they suspected some of the metal artifacts did not match the paperwork submitted.