illicit trade in art and cultural artifacts has increased
dramatically in recent years, including pillaging archeological
sites and illegally exporting objects protected by international
laws. Here's an FBI investigation that involves both areas.
case actually began back in 1987 in northern Peru, where the
ruins of the Moche (pronounced mo-chay) civilization, which
flourished from about 100 B.C. to 700 A.D., were being studied
by archeologists. Unfortunately, thieves broke into the royal
tomb of the Lord of Sipan, getting away with unbelievable
treasures. (In terms of its archeological importance, the
tomb of the Lord of Sipan is often compared to the more well-known
King Tutankhaman's tomb in Egypt -- it's even referred to
as the "King Tut of the New World").
of the most valuable artifacts stolen from the royal tomb
in Sipan was an extremely rare Moche backflap, part of the
royal costuming worn by elite members of the Moche civilization.
A backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is made of gold, copper,
and silver. Moche warrior-priests would wear the backflap
as armor during battle to shield their backsides.
particular backflap, however, could not protect itself from
the unscrupulous grip of thieves when it was taken from its
resting place in the royal tomb.
years later, in August 1997, black market smugglers Denis
Garcia and Orlando Mendez, both of Miami, were looking for
a buyer for a rare Peruvian artifact - a gold backflap. Garcia
contacted an art brokerage firm in New York to see if he could
arrange a sale. But, unbeknownst to him, the company was part
of an FBI undercover operation targeting art theft, and he
was referred to undercover FBI Agent who posed as an art broker.
undercover agent contacted Garcia, who described the item
for sale and recounted the story of his association with the
backflap. Garcia claimed that the artifact was acquired by
a former President of Peru during one of his visits to the
Sipan region. After leaving office, the President gave the
artifact to an uncle -- who was willing to sell it to Garcia.
agent wanted proof of Garcia's claim and instructed him to
send photos of the backflap. Garcia did as he was told --
his package contained a number of photos of the backflap,
along with two editions of a National Geographic magazine
which had a story about the backflap's origins. Feeling sure
he had a buyer, Garcia added his selling price -- a cool $1.6
gave the "art broker" a few days to contemplate
the offer before calling him back and arranging a face-to-face
meeting. This meeting took place on September 5, 1997, at
a rest stop. Garcia brought his partner Orlando Mendez with
him -- he claimed Mendez was his son-in-law who spoke much
better English and knew more about art. The undercover agent
brought along someone too, another FBI Special Agent, whom
he introduced as his assistant who spoke Spanish very well,
so they could do business without any complications.
who didn't have the backflap with him, said it was enroute
to New York from Peru and he had to make arrangements with
his contact "Frank," an employee of the Panamanian
Consulate in New York. A deal was made to contact the agent
when it was ready for delivery.
while Garcia and Mendez made their arrangements, the FBI agents
were making their own arrangements: how the takedown would
be executed when the appropriate time came.
four weeks later, on October 2nd, Mendez called the agent
to say the backflap was in New York and they were ready to
do business. He first instructed the agent to get a cashier's
check for $60,000 as a down payment in the name of Francisco
Iglesias, but then quickly changed his mind and said to write
the check out to the Mid Steel Corporation. They arranged
to meet on October 7th at the same rest stop.
FBI agents arrived first. Then, a black limo bearing diplomatic
tags pulled up - it was Garcia, Mendez, and "Frank,"
aka Francisco Iglesias, who introduced himself as Consul General
of Panama and presented his business card. Garcia got the
backflap out of the trunk of the car. The agent told the group
he wanted an art expert to authenticate the item.
reaching their destination, the FBI agents pulled into a hotel
parking lot. Garcia opened the trunk again, revealing the
artifact. At that point, several FBI agents and detectives
from a local police department surrounded the group and arrested
the trio. Consul General Iglesias was released. He returned
to New York, then went on a "vacation" to Panama
and has never returned.
Map of the Region, Mission