LOS ANGELES — When archaeologist William Folan first went to Calakmul more than 14 years ago, gun-toting grave-robbers controlled the jungle site, one of the biggest Mayan ruins in Central America, straddling Mexico and Guatemala.
Today, Calakmul has state-of-the-art satellite imaging equipment, armed guards, and a modern museum for discoveries such as a stunning, 9th-century jade mosaic mask Mr. Folan found in a royal tomb. The surrounding forest has been declared a state reserve.
With decades of civil strife behind them, Central American countries are gearing up to fight a new war: stanching the flow of their cultural patrimony. Interpol ranks the multibillion-dollar international market in antiquities behind only drugs and arms sales. Pre-Columbian items are most in demand.
"The defense of our heritage is not just for us, but also for the whole world, for all humanity," says Carlos Enrique Zea Flores, vice minister of culture and exports from Guatemala, adding, "On this past, we build our future."
While the extent of the problem gives good reason for pessimism - according to the Archaeological Institute of America, more than 85 percent of the important Mayan sites in Guatemala already have been destroyed by looting - successes like Calakmul illustrate what can be done with stepped-up education and better enforcement.
Other countries are following suit. The Salvadoran government has created a network of 112 "culture houses" in numerous cities around the countryside. Roberto Galicia, president of the National Council of Culture and the Arts of El Salvador, explains that these grass-roots organizations "are the biggest bulwark to reach the communities that will support the protection on the actual sites."
Guatemala has instituted a series of educational programs focusing on the importance of leaving archaeological sites intact. In addition, there is a move in the country toward encouraging a revival of the Mayan language. This is a good sign, according to Clemency Coggins, Boston University archaeologist and art historian, because the real value of these objects lies in their full historical context.
Ms. Coggins points out that this is what dealers and collectors forget about when they trade the individual artifacts. "These things have a priceless story to tell and when you take them off their sites, the story is gone."
Art dealers are understandably defensive about their role in this struggle. They also maintain that exhibits play a key role in cultivating the sort of interest that in turn generates tourism dollars and supports conservation. "We would hope to find a middle ground," says New York dealer Gerald Stiebel.
Since money has been the driving force behind the illicit traffic in these artifacts for centuries, the region's leaders recognize that the real struggle is to change people's attitudes. Says Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, Honduran minister of culture and arts, "We need to develop a conscience about these things so that our people won't offer them and tourists will reject offers that will be made to them at the sites."
Folan agrees, pointing out that at Calakmul, as at many of the important historic sites, the looters are local people. He says they are still around his site, but their attitudes are changing because it is becoming a source of local pride and more important, potential income from tourism.
In addition, as the vast 6,200-structure site has become more well known, previously plundered items have been returned. Folan believes that "people are beginning to think the site is good for people, good for the region. Because of that, we just had some steles [carved pillars] come back to us from Australia."
Recently, six Central American culture ministers traveled to Los Angeles for a first-ever meeting with the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) at the Getty Conservation Institute. Their purpose was to trade ideas.
Equally important is that the ministers examined ways to expand US cooperation in protecting their cultural property, since the United States makes up nearly half the international antiquities market - nearly 80 percent of which is said to be plundered, illegally exported, or fake.
"Cultural protection is an idea whose time has come," says Martin Sullivan, CPAC chair and director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
CPAC, consisting of 11 presidential appointees representing museums, archaeologists, dealers, and the public, implements the 1970 UNESCO treaty designed to foster international cooperation in protecting cultural artifacts.
Eighty-five nations are party to the UNESCO treaty, but, according to the US Information Agency, the US is the only major art-importing nation. By signing, the other 84 nations may ask the US to put import controls on their cultural patrimony. It is the job of the committee to review requests and make recommendations to President Clinton.
Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador recently have requested and received protections under this agreement. One immediate result, according to Guatemala's Dr. Flores, is that his country has been able to recover 680 artifacts from US Customs interdiction.
In general, the prospect for retrieval of stolen artifacts is dismal. According to Arnoldo Mora Rodriguez, Costa Rica's culture minister, only 10 percent of the pieces illegally exported are returned by police intervention.
But recently there have been some notable successes:
*When a cache of historic documents missing from the Guatemalan repository for archives recently turned up in a New York gallery, US customs stepped in. The papers were returned in June.
*After a collection of pre-Columbian turquoise and gold jewelry was advertised in Sotheby's fall 1994 catalog, the Peruvian Embassy contacted US Customs. Experts confirmed that the items had been taken illegally from the protected site of Sipn. They also were repatriated in June.
However successful intervention efforts have been, CPAC director Sullivan stresses that CPAC's main thrust is to protect against any further destruction of important sites. "The real challenge now is a change in behavior. Our top priority is to put across the message [of] the extent to which illicit traffic is devastating to our joint cultural heritage."
One problem that hampers the best efforts is the lack of documentation, according to archaeologist Coggins. "It's hard to quantify the problem. The evidence is always anecdotal, and there's seldom any hard information so we can really know what's happening."
But beyond that is an equally difficult problem to solve. Many of these archaeologically important items are collected by rich and powerful people in their own countries. Coggins says, "They're not leaving the country at all."