Mexico city -- mexico's most powerful banker flies by helicopter into Teotihuacan, the renowned, two- millennia-old sacred city just outside the capital, where he and his lover celebrate his 50th birthday with a champagne and caviar midnight picnic high atop the great Pyramid of the Sun. Roberto Hernandez, president of Banamex and a schoolmate of president-elect Vicente Fox, denies that this sumptuous tryst ever happened.
Workers at the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) swear that it did.
Carlos Slim, Latin America's wealthiest tycoon, threatens to throw up a wall of skyscrapers that will plunge the ancient (4,000 years) ruins of Cuicuilco in southern Mexico City into permanent darkness. Slim already operates a bustling shopping mall on the north end of the ceremonial site.
Along Quintana Roo's gold coast south of Cancun, a group of investors reportedly including proxies for finance minister Angel Gurria lease the ruins around the pristine "cenote" (natural well) at Xcaret, convert the site into a private resort and stage tourist spectaculars at $45 U.S. a head, prohibitive for local Mayans, the true owners of the cenote.
Meanwhile, across the Yucatan peninsula, American Express rents the most monumental pyramid at Chichen Itza to stage a Luciano Pavarotti three-tenor extravaganza.
And up the Caribbean coast in northern Veracruz, at El Tajin, governor Miguel Aleman (once co-owner of the Televisa entertainment conglomerate) brings in the nation's number-one rock producer (OCESA does the Rolling Stones shows when they are in Mexico) to mount a New Age fete celebrating the first spring of the millennium at eye-popping prices.
The good vibes (and multiple helicopter landings) of Tajin 2000 shake loose the stones from the millennia-old pyramids, terminally collapse an ancient drainage system, gouge the sacred grounds and thoroughly disgruntle many of the local Totonacos, whose cultural matrix the ruins represent.
Are Mexico's most precious indigenous power spots being sold off to the highest bidder? Although privatization is not yet universal, about-to-be president Vicente Fox could conclude the deal during the present session of the nation's new Congress.
During the last Congress, Fox's National Action Party (PAN) cohort Senator Mauricio Fernandez Garza introduced a measure modifying Article 72 of Mexico's constitution, which pertains to the ownership of the nation's treasures.
Garza's reform would "de-nationalize" Indian ruins, giving over their administration to private enterprise in association with local jurisdictions and public-interest groups (presumably indigenous ones).
Garza, a Monterrey-based industrialist and a member of one of the country's most affluent families, is also Mexico's most avid fossil collector. (He has reportedly cornered the market in woolly mammoth bones.)
Indeed, Garza's industries have just about turned settlements neighbouring his Pyosa paint factories into fossils. Environmental authorities deem Garza responsible for the contamination of communities abutting his Monterrey-based plant with poisonous lead.
Now, the National Action Party has revived Garza's patrimony privatization measure as part of its legislative package in the new Congress. The PAN holds a majority in the lower house, but trails the long-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by a handful of votes in the Senate.
The PAN putsch to privatize the ruins conjures up the spectre of political conventions at Teotihuacan and "quinceneras" (girls' 15th birthday parties) atop the giant Mayan pyramids at Palenque, quips Luis Hernandez Navarro, a one-time adviser to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) during prolonged negotiations with the Mexican government.
The 1996 San Andras Accords pledged Indian administration of and free access to ancient indigenous ruins -- but curiously, conceded that such sites were the property of the whole nation.
In August 1999, in response to the PAN's privatization threat, the EZLN convened a jungle conclave "in defence of the national patrimony." It was attended by hundreds of INAH workers, anthropologists, students and Indians. The Zapatistas' Subcomandante Marcos told them a creation myth from the sacred Mayan book, the Popul Vuh, and swore that "our world is not going to be turned into Disney World."
The PANista bid to privatize the nation's archaeological treasures is certainly not the only thrust in this direction. There are 200,000 archaeological sites in Mexico, all of them under permanent siege by looters, both local Indians and international smuggling syndicates.
No one really comprehends the dimensions of this "industry," calculates the INAH's Enrique Nalfa. "There is no inventory, so no one really knows what's missing."
A few years ago, a Mayan altar at El Cayo in the deep jungle between Chiapas and Guatemala was valued by smugglers at $1 million U.S. on the black market.
The sub-soil of Mexico is thick with the shards of the past -- and today, recovering those pieces and mounting them for the tourist trade is big business. Tourism secretariat officials estimate that a quarter of the more than $8 billion U.S. that visitors spend in Mexico is generated in and around the nation's great ruins.
In Mexico City, both the heart of present-day power and the seat of the Aztec empire, the stab of a shovel often yields a treasure trove. Back in 1978, electrical workers laying new lines under the Metropolitan Cathedral uncovered the Templo Mayor, the great Aztec twin temples dedicated to Tlaloc, the rain god, and Huitzilopochli, the god of war. The Templo Mayor is now one of Mexico's most important tourist attractions.
Last February, across the street from the temple ruins, workers tearing down the scraps of a saloon, in preparation for the construction of an official residence for the city's mayor, discovered a stone box. It contained brilliant textiles, bark paper ("amate") and figurines of Tlaloc fashioned from copal incense that still retained their fragrance after a 500-year entombment.
It's been dubbed a once-in-a-lifetime find by the Templo Mayor's spiritual guardian, archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, but the city, citing property values, has refused to suspend construction.
According to unhappy INAH workers, tourist income generation guarantees ever-increasing investments in infrastructure at some sites, while less lucrative but historically more pertinent digs get shut out by these "mega-projects."
"Investigation budgets are being determined by the Secretary of Tourism," complains one anthropologist, who asks for anonymity.
At Tonina, smack in the middle of the Zapatista zone of influence near Ocosingo, archeologist Juan Yadcum is indignant because the site, which has the tallest pyramid in Mexico, is not even listed on the Ruta Maya, the string of archaeological sites along which tourists travel.
Although Tonina historically fought many wars with the Pakal dynasty at Palenque, 100 kilometers to the north, Palenque attracts many more tourists, drawing half a million visitors a year.
But if tourists bypass Tonina, local Zapatistas have become quite attached to the ruins, symbolically occupying them on several occasions since the explosion of their 1994 rebellion. In 1993, just before the EZLN declared war on the Mexican government, the figure of a Mayan war god was expropriated from the Tonina museum. Later, it was found in a nearby cave, swaddled in Mayan fabric, presumably the object of veneration by rebel fighters.
Zapatista communities that harbour artifacts and ruins fight to keep them from being removed by the INAH, which they view as being part of the "mal gobierno," or "bad government."
In 1997, the institute sent a transnational team of scientists into El Cayo to remove an altar that looters had threatened. But when they brought in a helicopter to transport the piece to a nearby city, the scientists were set upon by rebel villagers and chased barefoot into the bush. They eventually crossed into Guatemala, where they were rescued days later.
"Things have changed in the Lacandon since the Zapatista rebellion," observes Jan de Vos, the highly respected biographer of the Lacandon and its peoples. "The government's anthropologists can't just start digging anywhere without the permission and the participation of the indigenas."