David Freidel and His Search for Mayan Treasure
For three decades, professor David Freidel has hunted for Mayan treasures and brought glory to SMU. Now he and other archaeologists say drug traffickers threaten their work. But the truth behind the published reports don’t make for a Hollywood ending.
Our truck bounces up a rutted mountain road in northern Guatemala. I am in the backseat. Arturo Godoy, a laid-back 33-year-old local, is at the wheel. Riding shotgun is David Freidel, a man described to me months earlier as the "Indiana Jones of SMU." Admittedly, that description came from the univeristy, but the media relations staffer had strong corroborating evidence. In the last four years, National Geographic and National Public Radio have done reports on Freidel, an expert in Mayan studies who has taught at SMU for 34 years. U.S. News & World Report called the professor a modern-day hero whose courage in the face of danger would put Indiana Jones to shame. The magazine painted a rousing portrait of an ace tomb hound making a stand against lawless farmers, looters, drug dealers, and arsonists.
Godoy drives fast, and the truck churns the road’s fine white dirt into clouds of dust as we head into a national park called Laguna del Tigre-"Wildcat Lagoon" in English. In this jungle region famous for its jaguars, the first real sign of human life is a cluster of gravestones. Some are painted bright pink, some sky-blue; all are topped with simple white crosses. It is a quaint scene, and I feel happy that I’ve been assigned to write a straightforward, upbeat profile about a modern Indiana Jones.
"We should roll up the windows," says Godoy, who has been Freidel’s camp manager and community liaison for three years.
I obey, wondering why, as wood shacks with thatched roofs appear. Kids peek out from doorways, and a young mother sits in the sun breast-feeding an infant while her friends braid each other’s long black hair. This is Paso Caballos, the horse ford where Hernando Cortes crossed the San Pedro River 500 years ago in pursuit of a renegade conquistador. Many of the 150 Kekchi Mayan families living here today are relative newcomers, and most of the dads and older boys are off working 12-hour days in small maize fields nearby.
"Right now, the people are very anxious, and they don’t know what side I’m on," Freidel says matter-of-factly.
That sounds odd, since Freidel has been co-director of the dig just up the road for the past five years. How in five years have they not learned what "side" he is on? But it’s hard for me to digest facts and scenery at the same time. The truck zips past a group of men sitting in an open shed. Paso Caballos is a religious place-70 percent Catholic, the rest evangelical Christians-and I want to talk to someone familiar with the community. When I ask if there is a local priest or minister I can interview, Freidel doesn’t seem to think it’s a very good idea. "The best people to talk to are the workers in our camp," he says.
We zoom out of the village, climbing the road between fields newly cleared by the traditional Mayan slash-and-burn method. To the right, acres of charred stumps reach up the slopes of a limestone ridge. To the left, scorched land stretches down 300 yards to the lazy green San Pedro River. The farmers have already planted squash in the burned earth, and they will soon plant beans and maize.
During our first interview in his campus office back in Dallas, Freidel spoke passionately about the chaos near the ancient ruins of El Peru, in Laguna del Tigre. He said landless squatters invading the park in large numbers were being enlisted by drug gangs to roust him and his colleagues from the site. It was a Wild West environment, he said, full of good guys and bad guys. "When I first arrived, I was told that the invaders, the drug smugglers, and the rich people who buy cattle ranches were going to burn me out," he told me. "And I said, "I’m gonna come in here and do this research, and they’re going to have to burn the whole damned rain forest down over my head."
It’s easy to see how a reporter could visit Guatemala for a few days and be romanced by this dramatic version of events. It certainly makes for good copy. But the more time I spent in Guatemala-a tragic little train wreck of a country where half the children suffer from malnutrition and 10 percent of the population has already snuck into the United States-the more the Indiana Jones comparisons seemed to miss the mark. The nation’s drug trafficking problem is old news, and tons of cocaine do flow through the Laguna del Tigre park. The new news is that Freidel and several other archaeologists are caught in the middle of a widespread land revolt. Most of the "lawless" farmers impinging on their digs have solid cause for complaint-and nothing to do with running drugs.
How the professor got trapped in this tinderbox turns out not to be an upbeat tale at all. Even though the ruins of El Peru are 1,200 miles from our shiny city, it’s a story Dallas should follow. Because if the Guatemalan government can’t solve its land problem, more desperate immigrants will head north. And if Washington brands the farmers who stay as bad guys, radical anti-American sentiment will catch fire mighty close to home.
Freidel’s story is also one that SMU should study closely. He believes the university has been misled by its board and has lost sight of its core mission. After 34 years in Ponyland, the professor is moving on to greener pastures.
Freidel’s camp sits by a marsh where a hand-painted sign warns swimmers about crocodiles. In a clearing between stands of towering trees, there are raised platforms for tents and green wooden buildings: kitchen, worker barracks, lab, dining cabin, and separate toilets for workers and archaeologists. The head cook, a short, plump woman named Reina, greets Freidel with a hug. Ordinarily, his arrival would signal the commencement of the spring field season, 40 days of intensive excavation at the nearby ruins by a team of 10 academics and 75 workers. But Freidel canceled the 2008 season at the last minute, a big letdown for many locals.
There is fresh bad news waiting when we arrive, news that explains the anxiety of the villagers back in Paso Caballos: a group of squatters recently burned a patch of forest about four miles to the north of the El Peru ruins, near a settlement called YalÃ¡. Their intention, according to Godoy, was to cultivate the land and live on it permanently. Most of the 100 members of this new colony came from Paso Caballos. To avoid a violent conflict, the government pulled back the army troops and civilian police who normally patrol the park and occasionally quarter in El Peru. But after a conversation with his friend and fellow archaeologist Hector Escobedo-a cabinet minister and rising political star from an old military family-Freidel expects that the state will eventually respond "from a position of strength."
"This is no Yosemite," he says. "This is a park full of people, and the confrontation now developing is urgent. If the invaders expand, they are destroying primary high-canopy rain forest. The president knows that if he doesn’t hold the Laguna del Tigre, it will be catastrophic for the whole biosphere."
Reina and her helpers lay out a lunch of fried chicken, black beans, rice, and thick tortillas on the long communal table in the dining hall. After we eat, we drive out on an undulating road to see the compact ruins. Occupied between 300 B.C. and 900 A.D., El Peru was a business center that controlled trade on the San Pedro River and overland routes. At its zenith, the four main plazas and 800 other structures may have been home to 10,000 people. The once brightly decorated acropolis, ceremonial centers, and pyramids are shaggy green hills now, capped with trees. In the rubble under the roots, possibly stacked together in a temple staircase, lie the bones and funereal knickknacks of the ruling lords and ladies.
"My Don Quixote vision was that if I could develop an archaeology park, maybe we could save this beautiful rain forest from the people who want to destroy it," Freidel says, standing in a glade where spider monkeys are flinging chunks of scarlet fruit down onto giant carved limestone slabs. "Local invaders can benefit as guides and forest wardens, and help with wildlife conservation. To block the traffic in drugs, you put people in the way of the dealers and make it inconvenient for them."
Traditionally, archaeologists work a site for about five years to sustain their careers, then move on to new excavations. Today, some professionals are making an open-ended commitment to a single site. This requires serious fund-raising and an effort to make sure the project benefits the native population economically. "El Peru is the last place I’m going to work," Freidel says. "The goal is to try to empower poor people and empower the Guatemalans to take it away from us. It’s their country."
He wants to raise $6 million for his new Waka Foundation, the original name of El Peru. At present, his plans for an eco-park are purely conceptual-bicycle paths that will someday wind between semi-exposed monuments.
From the crest of the tallest pyramid, a wooden watchtower pokes through the canopy of trees. Up on the platform, butterflies cavort over a sunny jade-green jungle that spans the horizons. In addition to jaguars, the forest shelters foxes, tapirs, 260 bird species, and troops of howler monkeys whose dueling cries thunder back and forth for miles. Freidel thinks his project might help save 230 square miles of forest in a country that loses 300 square miles every year. He points north and says, "That is the breeding ground for the endangered scarlet macaw parrot." Then he points west, toward Mexico, the first stop for migrants and drugs. By one estimate, 90 percent of the cocaine eventually sold in the United States crosses into Mexico from land routes in Guatemala. The trade is worth tens of billions of dollars.
"It’s a matter of national security for the United States," Freidel says. "These guys want to make a little Columbia here. They want to have their own communities in various towns who work for them and facilitate the drug trade." He advocates a "hearts and minds" approach. "Give the government of Guatemala 15 minutes’ worth of what you’re spending in Baghdad every day, and we’ll show you hearts and minds," he says. "We’ll give you a fighting chance to hold the overland road where the drugs run. We’re the answer for every problem in the park."
It was a proposed tourist attraction that brought Freidel to SMU in the first place. In 1972, Dallas real estate syndicator John Love bought a chunk of beach in Belize that included Mayan ruins. Love wanted the mounds authenticated to add sizzle to his planned horse track resort. The SMU anthropologist who took charge of the project offered the archaeology contract to Freidel, a Harvard grad student at the time. "They wanted to hire somebody much more experienced," he says, "but they didn’t have the money, and I was cheap."
He discovered that the ruins were more than 2,000 years old. Nobody had ever found a Pre-Classic Mayan city before, and the lucky strike was a big career boost. Unfortunately, Love was going bankrupt in a real estate slump, and Freidel had to find new patrons. He asked family friend Leon Harris, chief of the Sanger-Harris company, for an introduction to Stanley Marcus. Harris and Marcus hadn’t spoken for years as a result of a bitter lawsuit, but to help out a friend, Harris sat down with both men at his favorite French restaurant on Lovers Lane. Freidel remembers Marcus as an unassuming man and a great listener, and the archaeologist soon found himself having lunch with a dozen wealthy friends of the Neiman’s boss. At the end of the meal, Marcus lit up a Punch cigar and said, "You should understand that David here is a brilliant young man, and this is an extraordinary project. We have to stand behind high potential people in our community, and I want you all to pull out your checkbooks and write him a check for a thousand dollars." Freidel watched as several of the guests complied.
"That taught me a lot about Dallas," he says. "So did the way John Love kept his word and kept supporting my research even when he was losing his shirt."
During the next two decades, Freidel co-authored two controversial books with Linda Schele, an influential University of Texas professor who died of cancer in 1998. After lengthy excavations in Yucatan, he came to El Peru, where so far the team he oversees for Escobedo has found five royal tombs and brought valuable recognition to SMU.
This story took a hard left in our first interview, when Freidel said that he hadn’t been happy at SMU for some time and was leaving to start a new career this fall at Washington University, in St. Louis. He described SMU as a place that doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be. And SMU was not ready to see him establish an open-ended commitment to El Peru. He was impressed by a "whatever it takes" attitude at Washington University. His wife, herself a longtime professor of archaeology at SMU, was offered a job there first. "The administrators treat women with parity and invest in their faculties, and the results speak for themselves," he said. "At SMU, the policy is "Go out and find a competitive job offer, and then we’ll start to pay attention to you."
He said SMU’s recent priorities have been driven by the personal agendas of board members. In his opinion, that has worked well for the Meadows School of the Arts and the Cox School of Business but disastrously for the undergraduate college. "The core of the institution is failing," he said. "It’s simply less than it was in the ’80s, and it’s getting worse."
When we return to camp from our tour of the ruins, Reina and her helpers lay out a hearty dinner for the archaeologists, who eat separately from the crew. After dark, the workers gather in the courtyard for a favorite ritual: watching a DVD movie projected on a sheet. The flick stars Cantinflas, and under a sky full of blazing constellations, the Mayans laugh loudly at the exploits of the plucky Mexican underdog. At 2 in the morning, however, the camp is awakened by a drunken American graduate student directing waves of profanity at camp manager Arturo Godoy.
The next day, Godoy shrugs off the incident as a tantrum by a "spoiled brat." Freidel diagnoses the tiff as a case of camp fever, noting that the men had been cooped up out in the jungle for 30 days. But he worries about the breakdown of his team when Godoy, whom he introduced as his "right hand," decides to give notice.
"So many things haven’t clicked yet," Godoy says to me later, a blue bandana tied around his head. "The foreigners only come during field season, and they don’t appreciate all the bureaucratic errands required to keep the project running." He feels the Americans need to spend more time with local people, and he hopes that his stepping out of the loop will force the archaeologists to do things themselves and gain a better understanding of the reality on the ground. Godoy also cites the invasion of the squatters from Paso Caballos at YalÃ¡ as a stress factor.
"It just changes the whole thing here for us," he says.
A sense of friction deepens later in the day when the Mayan men on Freidel’s skeleton crew sit down at the long dining table to bargain with their American boss. Most are paid $200 a month, basically minimum wage. Some have been requesting a raise for two years, and for three years none has received all the periodic "benefit" payments required by Guatemalan law for employees not under contract. The payments are in cash and have nothing to do with benefits as the term is understood in the United States. The El Peru crew accepted a compromise on these payments a year and a half ago, but they are still upset and feel that Freidel has ignored their complaints.
"I don’t have more money than I have," he says. "You say you don’t have benefits, but you have work."
"Es un cosa de realidad," says one of the workers. "It’s a matter of reality.€VbCrLf Record inflation in the country has pushed the cost of essential food staples and fuel out of reach. The worker sums up his frustration with a country proverb. "If we don’t cry, we never get the tit,€VbCrLf he says.
Freidel tells the men that he’ll check with the treasurer of his foundation to see what might be done. The Mayans ride out of camp on trail motorcycles, their machetes in belt sheaths on their hips. English voices consult quietly in the mess hall. "If we raise their salaries, we might be able to put a new contract in place,€VbCrLf one says. "It gets us out of the benefits.€VbCrLf
Freidel knows he can’t afford to alienate workers who know the site well. After a tomb discovery in 2006, looters raided that structure in the middle of the night. At times, indeed, Freidel’s version of the project history has the flavor of a siege chronicle. In 2003, he says he was "surrounded by people trying to burn us out.€VbCrLf After the first tomb discovery in 2004, an army unit was committed to El Peru for protection. In spite of this show of force, he says a village leader in Paso Caballos with links to drug dealers arranged for thieves to steal the team’s Mitsubishi truck. In the same year, Godoy and two workers were confronted in Paso Caballos by a group of unemployed men with machetes who demanded that the El Peru project stop hiring workers from other communities. The president of Guatemala came for a tour in 2005 and dispatched an army major to ratchet up security. Now, three years later, a brand-new colony of farmers is planting food crops just up the road.
When it is time for us to leave El Peru, Freidel heads out in a separate truck while I ride with Godoy. We pass the burned fields again, and Godoy points out how errant sparks have floated down and torched a reed bed in the river where crocodiles breed. Foreigners who read stories about the Laguna del Tigre park should understand that slash-and-burn farming is not a meticulous process. Fires sometimes spread unintentionally.
Back in Paso Caballos, an old woman in a bright hand-woven skirt balances a bowl on her head as she walks. She flashes a toothless grin when she sees a camera lens, then shyly hides her face with her hands. Godoy stops briefly to chat with a man who had hoped to work at El Peru this season. More unemployed men are sitting around, watching a young villager split firewood with an ax.
A source familiar with the El Peru project, requesting anonymity, supplies some helpful background. He says that the first American archaeologist put in charge of community relations in 2002 was so dictatorial that he came across as a racist. A year’s worth of this foreigner’s bossiness and condescension completely alienated the people of Paso Caballos, who kept petitioning the Americans to donate funds for the construction of concrete bridges-necessary infrastructure in a climate where spring rains turn dirt roads into soup. The team’s Mitsubishi truck, parked unattended for two days by the riverside, went missing after these written requests proved ineffective month after month. Public opinion lightened up a bit in 2005, because the tomb discoveries were exciting, and the archaeologists were making an effort to explain the project in a way that helped the workers grasp its significance.
But according to Godoy, at least one of the community leaders in Paso Caballos was a guerrilla during the civil war that rocked the country from 1980 to 1996. And while Freidel considers the army "the one thing the narco-traffickers are afraid of,€VbCrLf many civilians in the countryside still see soldiers as bad guys. During the civil war, which began as a battle for land rights, 440 Mayan villages were destroyed by the U.S.-backed army and death squads that were no secret to the State Department. Today, the drug racket has bought out members of the army and police.
Godoy drives us past a little roadside stand that sells soft drinks and cake. Colorful woven goods are arrayed on a porch bench. Since 1999, the villagers have been trying to develop their own little eco-tourism business. Two non-governmental organizations, Conservation International and ProPeten, provided training and helped the villagers deputize a tourism committee. In the first year, the operation grossed $4,700 from guide fees and food sales to tourists. You can sign up on ProPeten’s website for river and jungle excursions that employ the villagers. One of these is a guided tour of the archaeological ruins at El Peru.
The rest of the trip goes quickly. We visit Tikal, relatively close by, the main Mayan ruin that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Then we fly to Guatemala City to see the lab where the archaeology team’s curators work. This facility is set up in the upper story of a house ringed with razor wire in one of the capital’s safer neighborhoods. Treasures and remains unearthed at El Peru are brought here for scrutiny and classification, and the bones of kings and their noble ladies are neatly stacked on shelves in plastic bins.
We get back to the Holiday Inn just in time to order room service. We say goodbye to Freidel the following afternoon at DFW Airport. He is off to work on a grant application. A U.S. embassy officer he met with in Guatemala City told him that the State Department might be able to raise funds for his troubled outpost.
The minute I set down my travel bag down in my apartment back in Dallas, the contradictions in this story began to bother me. I had the viewpoints of a respected academic whom other writers had trivialized as an Indiana Jones persona. And I had eyewitness evidence of the grim reality facing the Mayans whom those writers had carelessly scripted as villains. I wondered how many American archaeologists actually had been killed in Guatemala in recent years by the fearsome network of squatters, looters, drug gangs, and parrot poachers. From what I could find, none had. On the other hand, the number of Mayan Indians killed by the Guatemalan government in disputes over land rights stands somewhere north of 200,000.
|DIG, DUG: (left) A ceramic bowl excavated from El Peru. (right) A jade relic thought to symbolize authority.|
Some digging revealed that the new farmer colony worrying Freidel near El Peru is not at all a unique phenomenon. Today there are more than 1,100 ongoing land disputes in Guatemala, a country where 2 percent of the landlords own 62 percent of all farmland and 94 percent of the population is left with 18 percent of the soil that can be cultivated. This is the worst distribution inequality in Latin America, and the country’s special prosecutor for human rights had already warned that the land battle was going to blow up if left unaddressed. Landless farmers have staged mass demonstrations, seized oil wells, and held tourists captive to publicize their plight. Like the others, the farmers in the new colony near El Peru were openly defying the authorities when they cleared land to feed their families. It just didn’t make sense to me that men involved in criminal activity would make such a high-profile, confrontational stand.
I tried to get in touch with the director of the NGO who knows Paso Caballos well. Surely, Rosa Maria Chan at ProPeten could help me understand the dynamics on the ground. I called her office and left messages in Spanish with everyone who picked up the phone. I wheedled her cell-phone number out of a secretary and filled up her voice mail. Then, by e-mail, I sent Chan a set of detailed questions in Spanish. What was going on with this new community near El Peru? Did any of the men who’d split off from Paso Caballos have ties to the drug trade? Or were they just trying to grow food like everybody else? If the army did make a strong response, would innocent citizens be at risk? She never responded, which is common in our business, but this particular cold shoulder bugged me. Why wouldn’t she want to get the word out about the troubles of her fellow Mayans? It made no sense, and it made me mad until I saw a report that activists who support the land rights movement were being assassinated.
I did get through to Richard Hansen, another American archaeologist who wants to leverage the tourist trade. Hansen’s huge Mirador Basin project has been written up twice in the Wall Street Journal
. Like Freidel, Hansen hopes to attract tourists who initially come to Guatemala to see Tikal. Freidel told me it was Hansen who arranged for General John Craddock, then in charge at U.S. Southern Command, to take a helicopter tour over the Laguna del Tigre park in 2006. After this trip, Craddock declared the park an "ungoverned space€VbCrLf and praised the Guatemalan government for activating a joint army-police task force. In the same article, the general mistakenly located Tikal inside the Laguna del Tigre park and lumped the squatter communities together with drug gangs as bad guys.
Logistically, Hansen doesn’t think it would be hard to shut down the drug trade. "I shake my head," he said during our telephone interview. "All it would take is four Apache helicopters out there with rocket pods and an order to shoot to kill."
As I neared my deadline, a new report about the crisis in Guatemala began to percolate globally. One month after I learned that farmers were setting slash-and-burn fires in the new colony near El Peru, Reuters dropped a story about fires being set 10 miles farther north, near a Mayan ruin called La Corona. From Guatemala City, Brendan Kolbay wrote that a team of American and local archaeologists had to put down their digging tools and pour buckets of water on flames near the excavation. The headline: "Drug Gang Jungle Fires Threaten Guatemalan Ruins."
"Wow," I thought, "some brilliant journalist has finally found hard evidence that the fires are being set by the cartels and their henchmen, not just by hungry farmers."
No such luck. The report was the usual jumble of conjecture and secondhand information. The archaeologists told Kolbay that illegal settlers had started the fires, and he correctly noted that these invaders "see the archaeologists as a threat."Facts in the report linking farmers to drugs: zero. Interviews with settlers: none. Hundreds of miles from the smell of smoke, the American reporter simply took dictation over the phone from a scholar who did not want his research interrupted. The archaeologist divined that the fire-starters were the puppets of drug dealers, and Kolbay jotted down that this was "likely" the case. Out around the world went the verdict, to shape future stories and the policies of nations.
I read the report four times and shook my head. I thought about Paso Caballos-the old lady with the bowl of corn on her head, the giggling kids, and the men who work 12-hour days in the fields just to keep skin and bones together. They are blood descendants of the people who built the pyramids that archaeologists want to study in peace. But the farmers have to live in their troubled country all year long, where no action hero seems poised to rescue them anytime soon.