SANTA MARTA, Colombia -- In an impoverished neighborhood of Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast, an old man dug under the merciless sun in an abandoned plot of land. A cigarette dangling from his lips, he held up what appeared to be a human bone to the sun for a closer look.
Alberto, hunting for pre-Columbian artifacts to sell on the black market, had found the piece in what probably was an ancient burial ground. He calls himself a "Colombian Indiana Jones."
"How would Colombia know about these sites and artifacts if we hadn't found them?" said Alberto, who requested that his full name not be used.
But the country's indigenous population calls him a grave robber who destroys their archeological sites, some of the few remaining tangible links to Colombia's pre-Spanish history. Such scavengers are the first in a chain that takes hundreds, possibly thousands, of artifacts each year from dusty excavation sites dotted around Colombia to the private homes of collectors in the rest of of the country and abroad.
Those seeking to protect the pieces say the struggle to protect pre-Columbian artifacts is often overlooked as the government focuses on winning a four-decade civil war against Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries and battling some of the world's most violent drug cartels.
In the past year, the government has promoted a campaign to raise awareness among the population and law enforcement officials about the damage this illegal trade is doing to the country's cultural patrimony.
"The police don't care about it here," said Alberto, who estimates there are 200 grave-robbers in Santa Marta alone, one of the more popular regions for such illegal excavations because a large number of indigenous people once lived here.
But Alberto and other grave-robbers are finding times tough. They have been banned by the country's right-wing paramilitaries from searching in the Sierra Nevada, a huge jungle expanse that rises up into snow-capped mountain peaks. The Sierra Nevada is an indigenous homeland with many burial sites and the ruins of the Lost City, the country's largest pre-Columbian ruins.
Colombia is struggling with a problem the Third World is forced to confront every day: Who has more right to the country's historical treasures? The national government who will showcase them in museums, or private collectors abroad who may have greater finances to properly care for the pieces?
Archeologists estimate that since the first people arrived in Colombian territory some 19,000 years ago, hundreds, maybe even thousands of tribes and social groups have existed. The historic legacy bequeathed by the pre-Spanish Colombians is particularly endangered, archeologists say. Unlike the empires in Mexico, parts of Central America, and Peru, Colombian tribes were for the most part nomadic and small in number, leaving few structures behind.
"As archeologists, we try to reconstruct the past and we need these sites to be well preserved, something these grave-robbers make impossible," said Victor Gonzalez, director of Colombia's National Anthropological Institute.
Treasure hunters and looters have scoured this territory twice the size of France since the Spanish arrived 500 years ago. In the haste to find gold and precious stones, conquistadors ransacked many of the indigenous burial grounds and settlements, discarding any relics save for the most beautiful that might be shipped back to Europe.
The country's Ministry of Culture is overseeing a program to register all pre-Columbian artifacts. People who register their artifacts will be allowed to keep them, while unregistered pieces will be confiscated. Gonzalez agrees in part with collectors who say that Colombia has no more right to these artifacts than anyone else and that the pieces are part of the patrimony of the world. But he believes they're helping to destroy archeological research.
"In their own way, collectors are trying to preserve what they consider to be a cultural legacy, but they are encouraging an industry that is systematically destroying the surrounding sites," he said. "The objects alone in a crystal case have no value; it's only in its own context that it has value. What did it express? What part of the culture was it?"
Gonzalez speaks from experience, having tried to excavate sites that have been ransacked by scavengers. "The grave robbing in some parts of Colombia has been so intense over so many years that large parts of the history of some of these societies has been erased forever," he said.
For the cash-strapped Colombian government, which is increasing military spending on the civil war and on battling the world's largest cocaine industry, buying the artifacts on the open market is not an option.
Blanca Rivera is the only Interpol agent assigned to cover the illegal trade in pre-Columbian goods.
"We really need to change our consciousness here in Colombia regarding our pre-Columbian history," Rivera said. "When you compare our attitudes as Colombians to our history with the French or the Romans, it's really embarrassing."
On his recent outing, Alberto found a huge vase, measuring some 3 feet in height. He gently dusted it down.
"Brother, I can get a lot for this," he said, unable to contain his excitement. A lot is $700.
Then his smile dropped. "Of course, anyone who gets this to Europe is going to sell it for a lot more."