PROFESSOR AND EXPLORER: Freidel with the pyramids of Tikal. His dig is hidden from tourists, in the Laguna del Tigre park.

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.”

INTO THE WILD: A hatch structure protects an excavation site at El Peru.
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 Yalá. 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.”