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. 

image of El Peru ceramic bowl image of El Peru jade relic
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.

pyramids WILD LIFE: The pyramids of Tikal sit on a groomed site, unlike David Freidel’s remote dig at El Peru.