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Oct 1, 2014

Is El Pilar Really Forgotten and Overran by Bandidos?

While Caracol has been in the news since last week, another Mayan site, though not as visited due to its remoteness, is perhaps the most dangerous to visit. El Pilar stands majestically between Belize and Guatemala in the west. Because of its location on the border line, it has become the stomping ground for Guatemalan bandits who operate routinely in the area.  In fact, the site has been looted, denuded and, to a degree, destroyed. The execution of a tourism special constable at Caracol has heightened fear among tour guides and others working in the area that their safety and that of visitors is at serious risk at El Pilar.  News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.


Isani Cayetano, Reporting

The ancient Maya city of El Pilar, Spanish for “watering basin”, straddles the Belize-Guatemala border in the west and has been declared a cultural monument by both countries.  Its geographical location is twelve miles northwest of San Ignacio Town; however, the archaeological reserve is also accessible from neighboring Melchor de Mencos, in the department of El Petén, Guatemala.


Jorge De Leon

Jorge De Leon, Tour Guide, Cayo Tour Guide Association

“The site of El Pilar was excavated about in the early eighties by Dr. Anabel Ford and it’s one of the sites that she tried to keep as pristine as it is, not exposing the structure of the site.  As you can see, only a small portion of the site is exposed and it gives another ambient experience from when you go to Xunantunich, Caracol, Altun Ha, you get all the building out and when archaeologists do that work it exposes the buildings to danger and so Ms. Anabel Ford tried to keep the buildings unexposed.”


As the largest site, covering a total of five thousand acres within the area of the Belize River, El Pilar is co-managed by the Institute of Archaeology.  Regrettably, this Pre-Classic metropolis off the beaten path is now virtually off-limits to visitors, as it has been overran by bandits.


Patrick Bradley, Tour Guide, Cayo Tour Guide Association

“There is no escort, there is no security and when we come here we always run the risk of being robbed.  This year, there is a gentleman that has a little ranch, a little farm not far from the site, his place was robbed.  The workers, the cooks were all tied up, you know, their place, they had solar panels, they destroyed all of that and, you know, when tourists come over here we always run the risk of being robbed.”


Sheltered in large part by a shade of lush overgrowth presented in a manner known as Archaeology Under the Canopy, this forbidden location has remained under constant threat of looting.


Jorge De Leon

“We would bring people at a high risk out here to explain the formation and it has like five different plaza floors that we see that is unexcavated, right.  So the plaza floors experience with the medicinal bushes that we have in the area is a big grasp to a lot of foreigners that want to know what we do in Belize and this site exposes a lot of that to them.”


Despite being listed among the one hundred most endangered sites in the world, El Pilar is seemingly ignored by law enforcement, as well as the National Institute of Culture and History which is charged with overseeing the upkeep and security of the area.  Tour guides, including Patrick Bradley, fear that El Pilar will suffer a similar fate to that of Caracol in the wake of last Thursday’s incident.


Patrick Bradley

Jorge De Leon

“If Caracol is closed we would need to go somewhere else and this would have been the next area that we would need to look into if we have to come to somewhere else.  But if it’s not safe or we are not assured of safety in the area, a lot of people wouldn’t take the risk of coming out here as well.”


It is a rather unfortunate situation, especially since there has been an effort to ordain El Pilar as the first archaeological peace park in the world.


Patrick Bradley

“It’s sad that, you know, we ask for help, you know, we always report these things to the people that need to know about it.  A few years ago, the tourism police was even, they offered that to anytime one wanted to come to El Pilar that it would have had a vehicle available so they could come over here.  But I think coming to a site with security that’s not the way to secure the site because that just puts the tourist and puts the guide at risk because if I am coming in in a vehicle and my security, the police is with me, you know, and if somebody wants to rob us and they jump out of the woods with guns and if they see somebody with a gun they’re gonna shoot.”


It is a real fear, one which manifested itself before a group of tourists in Caracol a week ago.  While that newfound reality has the nation in uproar, serious concerns are being raised about the threat to national security, the impact of poaching on the environment, as well as its effect on the tourism industry.


Jorge De Leon

“We know the Guatemalans have a hard time making life for themselves in their country and in Belize things that we do can make them a lot much more money for them to get through in life and so when we come we become a victim of them robbing from us which we had before in the area.  And so if we could get more of the personnel from the government to be out here, like what we have a little bit in Caracol, like the presence of the military securing the area, a lot of people, a lot of different tour operators have taken the site off their tours because of the risk of losing and being robbed in the area.”


Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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