Early last year, after experts from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered that 70 allegedly Mexican pre-Columbian artifacts were for sale on the online marketplace AuctionNinja, the country’s minister of culture took to X.

Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, head of the Secretariat of Culture of the Mexican Government, wrote simply “we oppose the sale of Mexico’s cultural heritage.”

In the following days, INAH and Frausto Guerrero’s office continued to condemn the auction in press statements, and filed complaints with the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office and Interpol, while the story circulated in Spanish-language news outlets. Frausto Guerrero also sent a letter to the platform demanding the auction be pulled down.

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The auction nevertheless proceeded as scheduled, andall the piecesapparentlysold, with AuctionNinja telling ARTnews it had no knowledge of the Mexican government’s claims. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration launched an ambitious campaign to reclaim lost or stolen Mexican cultural and historic goods shortly after he entered office in 2018, and Frausto Guerrero’s effort was just the latest strategy in that effort.

Dubbed #MiPatriomonioNoSeVende, or “My Heritage Is Not for Sale,” the campaign has used social media to call out sellers of Mexican artifacts, UNESCO for intervention, sued museums and collectors, and built coordination with law enforcement and government officials in the United States and across Europe. In 2021 AMLO, as López Obrador is more commonly known, created a new National Guard team, modeled on a similar unit in Italy, dedicated to that aim.

The campaign, in the government’s view, has been an unmitigated success. Since 2018, the country has repatriated more than 13,500 archaeological and historical objects from 15 different countries, including the US, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, INAH told ARTnews. That figure far exceeds the 500 objects repatriated during the administration of AMLO’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, according to a 2018 government report. Some of the most important recoveries, according to INAH, are 2,000 archaeological pieces voluntarily returned in 2022 by a family in Barcelona, which it says is the largest such repatriation in Mexican history. Another important recovery is 43 pre-Columbian archaeological objects that were recovered from Italy, repatriated last March. Perhaps the most prominent one is Chalcatzingo Monument 9, representing an “Earth Monster,” that was repatriated from the US this past May.

But, according to Mexican archaeologists and officials working at INAH who spoke with ARTnews, the splashy headlines and victorious repatriation ceremonies bely a far more complicated reality. The country’s heritage conservation sector, they said, has been suffering funding cuts, a labor shortage, late and unpaid salaries, and a lack of community involvement that many say could prevent the looting and theft of artifacts in the first place.

A Conservation Sector Beset with Budget Cuts

Members of the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), protested in front of the offices of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), to later march to the Angel of Independence, to demand the payment of debts, increase of the budget and rehiring of the personnel from the educational institution, on 5 January, 2022, in Mexico City. (Photo by Cristian Leyva/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Members of the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), protested in front of the offices of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) to demand the payment of debts, increase of the budget and rehiring of the personnel from the educational institution in January 2022 in Mexico City.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2022 Mexican archaeologist Daniel Salinas Córdova sought to push policy changes by publishing a paper in leading archaeology journal La Revista de Arqueología Americana urging his fellow experts in cultural heritage preservation and conservation to raise awareness and educate the public around the collecting and commercialization of Mexican archaeological antiquities. In the years before and since, he has watched as the government focused on public repatriation campaigns abroad, while ignoring issues at home.

“It’s great that the current administration is giving so much attention to these issues of recovering cultural heritage items from foreign collections and the art market,” Salinas Córdova told ARTnews recently. “But focusing so much on recovering archaeological or historical artifacts from abroad without thoroughly addressing the labor, economic and management issues in the heritage conservation sector [at INAH] is highly questionable and unsustainable in the long run.”

Víctor González Robles, doctoral candidate in anthropology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told ARTnews that the work the administration did to recover and repatriate the Baptismal Font from Caborca in Sonora and the ChalcatzingoMonument 9 is impressive, particularly the collaboration between the government, INAH, and the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office, which is in charge of investigating and prosecuting crimes. And yet, he added, these efforts have been coupled with debilitating cuts to funding.

In 2020 the government cut INAH’sbudget by 75 percent, forcing the institution to halt fieldwork and keep museums closed until the following year. Archaeologists from the Society for American Archaeology were so concerned that they sent an open letter to AMLO criticizing INAH’s publicly reported budget situation. That July, INAH director Diego Prieto Hernández said during a podcast interview that, despite the budget cuts, he was committed to no layoffs or salary changes, and that the important activities of the institution, including conservation, research, and education would not be impacted.

However, according to Animal Politico, a Mexican online news magazine, the funding issue predates the pandemic, and has continued to the present. The outletreported in December 2022 that the Ministry of Culture’s budget had decreased by 50 percent since 2017. The cuts were even more severe for INAH. A 2021 report by the Mexican government found that INAH had eliminated more than 950 positions over the previous two decades, even as the number of archaeological zones and museums open to the public had grown considerably. A 2019 edition of the report, Animal Politico said, found that INAH was suffering a budget shortfall of 601 million pesos, or approximately $35 million.

In July, around 150 workers of a national union of workers of INAH organized a protest outside Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology to advocate for budget increases to support museums and archaeological sites. While Animal Politico reported last fall that INAH is expected to receive a budget increase of 61 percent in 2024, INAH told ARTnews that, though there is a budget increase, it is not that high.

The Pyramid of the Sun is seen from the museum with the replica of the historic site of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, at the Teotihuacan archaeological site, about 42 km northeast of Mexico City, on March 14, 2023. (Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)
The Pyramid of the Sun is seen from the museum with the replica of the historic site of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, at the Teotihuacan archaeological site, about 42 km northeast of Mexico City, on March 14, 2023.
AFP via Getty Images

INAH’s budget issues are compounded by its oversight of Mexico’s expanding roster of 194 archaeological zones, 162 museums, and 515 historical monuments, as archaeologists discover new sites. The effect, according to Salinas Córdova, is that there are far too few experts caring for, studying, and cataloging recovered artifacts, and both museums and archaeological zones are severely understaffed and in urgent need of maintenance and basic supplies.

Knowing all this, Salinas Córdova asks, “How meaningful is it that thousands of archaeological pieces are being brought back from abroad?”

González Robles agreed that more funding is needed for INAH to fulfill its functions effectively. Beyond that, he said, the field is desperate for funding to increase research, conservation, and community involvement.

“More than diplomatic actions, I think it would require arduous work in the communities,” González Robles said, “because somehow the extraction of objects and illicit sales [are] related to a social context of poverty and marginalization, sometimes even to the presence of organized crime groups.”

González Robles has long advocated for more community involvement in Mexico’s archaeological sites, thousands of which currently operate outside the federal management model. Of the 53,000 sites in Mexico registered by INAH, only 194 are open to the public. As González Robles wrote in a 2021 paper, those sites not under INAH’s public management sit in a kind of “archaeological limbo,” where they are overseen by a constellation of private owners, municipalities, and local communities. Those third parties benefit from turning these sites into tourist attractions, while their legal status remains in question.

González Robles has called for reforms to resolve the status of these sites and to increase community involvement, whether in the form of increased surveillance at archaeological sites or training airport and postal service staff to identify and report stolen cultural goods, and establishing teams to patrol social media platforms and e-commerce sites.

Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, eBay, and others have become a “comprehensive black market” for antiquities. Enlisting communities to patrol these platforms and archaeological sites, González Robles has argued, could help prevent the loss of cultural goods there, rather than requiring the government to pursue flashy interventions.

Activism in the Realm of Presidential Politics

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is commemorating the 85th Anniversary of the National Institute of Anthropology and History at the National Museum of World Cultures in the Historic Centre of Mexico City. (Photo by Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is commemorating the 85th Anniversary of the National Institute of Anthropology and History at the National Museum of World Cultures in the Historic Centre of Mexico City.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

As much as AMLO has publicly championed the return of cultural heritage to countries of origin and strongly criticized illicit antiquities trafficking, there have been obvious contradictions.

Early last year, as the government was very publicly criticizing governments and illegal traffickers for removing cultural pieces from their original context, Mexico’sNational Museum of Anthropology hosted an international exhibition showing sculptural objects from Africa and Oceania, many of which came from European museum collections. As González Robles saw it, the exhibition exemplified a disconnect between the administration’s public pronouncements and actions.

“In general, this is a structural problem. And I believe that this administration has had the advantage of being able to confront it from the outside. But in the end, it is a vicious cycle that needs to be fully addressed,” González Robles said.

In addition, despite the government’s constant remonstration, it has never provided additional funds for the #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende campaign, according to INAH. Instead, the campaign has most often taken the form of training workshops for INAH workers and the National Guard by Italy’s Carabinieri, and public roundtable discussions covering such topics as how AI tools can aid database construction and tracking of trafficked cultural artifacts. In addition, AMLO has championed the campaign, provided updates, or openly condemned auctions of Mexican artifacts during his morning press conferences, sometimes joined by Frausto Guerrero, while his wife, First Lady Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, has used her social media accounts to call out museums and auction houses. And, while AMLO initiated the #MiPatriomonioNoSeVende crusade, it is worth mentioning that INAH was calling out offenders abroad long before he entered office.

Mexican archaeologistOmar Espinosa Severino, who has been vocal about archaeological looting and the rights of contract workers hired by INAH, told ARTnews that he believes the current administration uses the campaign to burnish its political reputation and to alter public perception of the professionals working in museums and the field of archaeology.

Having done a number of fieldwork stints at INAH, Espinosa Severino said “there is a disparity in the uses of heritage. It remains within the realms of political discourse.”

In 2016 Espinosa Severino and fellow archaeologists createdLibreta Negra Mx, an online initiative focused on promoting Mexican history, culture, and archaeology.

“There are numerous hurdles to overcome,” Espinosa Severino said of repatriated archaeological and historical goods, adding that the country’s archaeological and conservation teams aren’t being given the budget to do the work. “In the end, will [it] all end up in a storage facility?”

INAH, for its part, told ARTnews that it is working between numerous different legal frameworks in countries with Mexican cultural goods to try to get them returned, which is a challenge. Still, it said, in a statement, “we must point out that some auctions have been stopped, pieces have been removed from sale, and in some cases, they have been seized and sent back to our country.”

“It is an obligation of the Mexican government to continue filing the corresponding complaints and to keep raising our voice to prevent the trade of these types of objects that are sacred to Mexicans,” INAH added.

With the presidential election scheduled for June and AMLO set to leave office in September, it remains to be seen if Mexico’s bifurcated approach to cultural patrimony will outlive the administration.