Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Honduras seeks to protect cultural heritage

The country is taking steps to combat the smuggling of religious art and objects from the pre-Columbian, Colonial and Republican periods.
By Kay Valle for
TEGUCIGALPA – The Honduran Congress is expected to reform the penal code in 2013 to establish the first mandatory sentences for those convicted of crimes against cultural heritage.
From 2001 to 2012, authorities reported 304 cases of theft involving cultural goods, including artwork, manuscripts, books and monuments, as well as historical, artistic and archaeological objects, according to the Public Ministry’s (MP) Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Affairs and Cultural Heritage.
Authorities have been hindered in their ability to stop these crimes since penalties for crimes against cultural heritage are not addressed in the penal code. If the case involves the international trafficking of cultural objects, the prosecutor treats the case as contraband, which is punishable with a sentence of nine to 12 years in prison, according to the Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Affairs and Cultural Heritage Janny del Cid.
But if the stealing and selling of trafficked cultural goods remains in Honduras, the crime is considered as aggravated robbery, punishable with a prison sentences of five to eight years, del Cid said.
The lawmakers are reforming the law to mandate the following prison sentences for those convicted of trafficking of cultural goods:
Nine to 12 years for smuggling cultural heritage items, with the same penalty for those who buy stolen cultural goods;
Two to four years for the illegal possession of cultural heritage items;
Three to five years for damage to historical monuments and unreported archeological finds;
One to two years for unauthorized renovations or repairs to historic buildings without permission from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History;
Three to six years for unauthorized excavations and removals at archeological sites;
Three to six years for authorities who are involved in or facilitate the trafficking of cultural goods, with a ban from public service for twice the length of the sentence.
“There are significant challenges and the investigations are expensive, but we’re seeking to amend the laws to increase the sentences and thereby more effectively combat this crime, which affects the entire country,” del Cid said.
The relatively light application of sentences was clear in 2007, when an advertisement on a Mexican website offered “an original piece belonging to the ancient Mayan culture,” which caught the attention of Mexican authorities.Following an investigation, the piece was identified as a jadeite sculpture of a human head from the classic period of Mayan culture, between 250-900 BC, according to del Cid.
Mexican authorities contacted the Honduran Public Ministry and arrested the ad’s author, Honduran René Mauricio Cabañas, who was sentenced to 64 months in a Honduran prison.
“We expected a longer sentence [because the object left the country],” del Cid said.
From 2001-2012, Honduran authorities recovered 1,200 stolen cultural artifacts, but prosecutors tried only 47 of 304 cases during that span because they lack the resources to pursue those cases in a crime-ridden country, del Cid said.
Cultural damage
The majority of those who steal items of cultural heritage are members of organized crime groups who sell the goods on the black market, according to Omar Talavera, the head of the Unit for the Registry and Control of Cultural Goods at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH).
“It begins with the ‘huaquero,’ the person responsible for stealing the archaeological items and selling them for [as little as] US$2.50,” he said. “We have also identified individuals who are constantly visiting the temples and churches and have the knowledge to identify the goods.”
Talavera said the value of the stolen cultural items far exceeds the little money criminals receive for them, as often the items are originals that have historical and anthropological significance, making them invaluable.
“The [Catholic] churches and archaeological sites are the main targets for the theft of cultural heritage,” said Dr. Eva Martínez, the assistant manager for Cultural Heritage at the IHAH.
It’s extremely difficult to recover goods once they’ve left Honduras, del Cid said.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) included Honduras on its Red List of Endangered Cultural Objects of Central America and Mexico, a guide that shows which objects have the highest demand on the black market.
“The list serves as a warning to museum directors, who are constantly renewing their collections [and] may purchase objects without knowing that they are cultural goods from other countries,” Martínez said.
Honduras also is working with other nations to prevent Honduran goods from being trafficked worldwide.
This past August, Honduras recovered a polychrome painted vase from 800-900 AD, which was illegally exported from the Valle de Comayagua region. The vase was returned by Brig. Gen. Pasquale Muggeo, the commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Italy, to Mayra Reina de Totta, the chargé daffier of the Honduran Embassy.
Along with the vase, which is a product of the Lenca culture that populated the central region of Honduras from 1200 BC-900 AD, 18 other archeological pieces were recovered, 15 from Italy and three from South America.
“I’m confident that by being persistent, we will have a positive impact on the population,” Martínez said. “We’ll not only be recovering cultural goods that have been stolen but also punish those responsible. We’ll also be renewing their belief in the need to protect their history.”

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