Peruvian homeowners' nightmare: My house is built on a cemetery!

As Peru's real estate booms, land traffickers are 'selling' state-owned, protected historical sites – complete with ancient ruins – to unsuspecting home builders.

When Flor Gómez moved to Lima with her mother in 2007, they lived in a single rented room, far from the city center. But Ms. Gómez, who supports herself and her mom selling bus tickets, quickly realized they couldn’t afford to rent for long. So, when she came across a piece of land for less than a hundred dollars, she bought it.

“Maybe it was a bit of a mistake on my part, for not having really done research on the area first,” says Gómez. “But I did it because of our finances, and because we didn’t have anywhere else to go.” She soon discovered she’d been sold an illegal lot – on top of a pre-Hispanic cemetery.

There are 13,000 ruins, known here as huacas, scattered across Peru – such as Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines – with more than 400 located in the capital. As Peru's economy has grown in recent years, real estate boomed in Lima, creating a market for so-called “land traffickers,” who take advantage of working class people like Gómez, desperate to find affordable housing.

“Traffickers sell people land at very low prices, and then they disappear. And it becomes our responsibility to get [squatters] off that land,” says Blanca Alva, director of the division of the Ministry of Culture’s charged with defending cultural patrimony.

Huacas are property of the Peruvian state and protected by law, but land traffickers, exploiting the fact that Peru has trouble enforcing its laws, have sold thousands of people like Gómez illegal lots on top of historical sites.

“It’s become a permanent conflict,” says Ms. Alva, who says the ruins belong to all Peruvians. “The issue of land invasions is only getting worse.”

Alva, along with a team of three archaeologists, is charged with protecting Lima’s huacas. This can translate to anything from filing paperwork, to scrambling up mountainsides in isolated areas, to fending off angry residents armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails. She says this year alone she’s received 71 reports of new land invasions in Lima's huacas.

'A spectacular site'

Ruins in Peru aren’t always visible. Sometimes builders and homeowners are blatantly tearing down archaeological gems, like a temple that was bulldozed by developers in San Martín de Porres in 2012. Other times, the ruins are still mostly underground, like the Necropolis Miramar where Gómez built her small, white plywood home. 

About a half hour’s drive from the airport, Necropolis Miramar is a sandy plain of about two square miles. It sits right at the entrance to the district of Ancón, a seaside town popular in the 1950s, and part of the Lima metropolitan area. Jorge Arellanos, a municipal employee charged with economic development and tourism, gives a quick tour.

“It’s a spectacular site, you could do so much with it,” says Mr. Arellanos, squinting into the hazy sun. He sidesteps various piles of trash, and politely ignores the smell of human waste.

Arellanos says he dreams of turning the ruins into a tourist destination, with a museum and educational center, but says the district simply doesn’t have the ability to patrol its archaeological ruins, nor to keep people from doing what they want with them. He faults a lack of communication between different government institutions, as well as budget constraints.

“We’re impotent. Peru is filled with cultural sites, but it really lacks urban planning,” Arellanos says. “People see these sites are abandoned; that there’s no security. And they take advantage of it.”

Despite being charged with evaluating the site's potential, Arellanos admits this is the first time he’s actually walked across it, saying that the land conflict has him worried about security. At the edge of the plain, where a cluster of about two hundred illegal dwellings have crept into the huaca, a young woman hurries toward the main road. Arellanos is hesitant to approach her, and a colleague accompanying him flat out refuses.  

The woman was Gomez, having come home after classes at a local college, and rushing to catch a bus to work. She studies history, and says when she learned the land she bought was illegal – and sat on atop a huaca – she was appalled.

“What makes me indignant is that the state does nothing here,” says Gómez. “I’m still in debt; I did everything possible to buy our home. But I’m also in favor of protecting this place,” she says.

“It’s an archaeological site, and it should be preserved.”

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