And while Caracol's security has been into sharp focus after the lawman's slaying, the Tour Guides from Cayo say that this Mayan site isn't the only
one under constant siege by Guatemalan Bandits.
As we showed you last night, the Cayo Tour Guides Association is concerned that because EL Pilar National Park has been getting institutional neglect
for years, they will soon have to abandon it completely.
They took use into the Mayan Archeological Site yesterday evening, and Daniel Ortiz has that story:
The El Pilar Archeological Site, It's a Maya Ruin just about 11 miles outside of San Ignacio Town. The problem is that this Temple Site sits both in
Belizean and Guatemalan Territory.You can climb on top of one of the ancient ruins, look out in the distance, and see Guatemala.
The site sits on the Belize/Guatemala Border, and so, it is exposed to Guatemalan activity, especially armed bandits.Tour guides want to bring their
international guests, but with danger lurking right across the border some 25 minutes away, they're slowly giving up on El Pilar as a viable destination.
Patrick Bradley - Cayo Tour Guide
"We are in one of the main temple in El Pilar, the site that have Belize right here. Right beyond the site across the building is Guatemala and we have
the same situation when we come to do a tour in Belize without any security, without any kind of access without any help in the area. We are always on
our won with the tourists and Guatemala is next door and at any time poachers could come in and have a way with us."
Jorge De Leon - Cayo Tour Guide
"Most tour operators over the past 5 years approximately have removed El Pilar from their packages."
Joe Awe - President, Cayo Tour Guide Association
"We have conceded El Pilar to the banditos, nobody goes to El Pilar because we are very scared of going to El Pilar."
Jorge De Leon
"When we come here we run the risk of being robbed. This year there's a gentleman that has a little farm not far from the site, his place was robbed.
They workers, the cooks were all tied up. They had solar panels, they destroyed all that and when tourists come over here we also run the risk of being
robbed. There's fellow guides, year and a half ago approximately that he was robbed, he lost is binoculars, he lost money, all the jewellery, all the
cameras that the tourists had, all of that was taken from them."
That's unfortunate because the El Pilar is visually stunning and culturally rich. It has the ambience of a location which has many secrets left to be
discovered, which is part of the package offered to tourists who've had the opportunity to visit:
Jorge De Leon
"When you come to a site like this you want to see building that are partly developed and here you can see where the roots and the trees are wrapping
and holding everything together. This is a part of the experience the tourists want to see, they want to come to a site and experience that India Jones
type of experience, you want to come to place and you want to feel like you're the first one there and this is what El Pilar offers you. It gives you
from astronomy to palace complexes and then it gives you that adrenaline rush of being so close to the border thinking that something might happen. But
you're wishing nothing happens and that's what we need to secure. Give these people that experience but make it safe for them. People are looking for
that rush but we need to give them that rush without being endangered."
There are signs that the site has been looted – as evidenced by this trench.
"That's a looter's trench, the looters come in and dig up the site and find what ever artefact they can find and take out anything from Belize without
nobody knowing what they have. They can take maybe the best of the site would have, jewellery and jades and so forth. Nobody has access to it, but the
people who come from Guatemala loot the place and mess up the site and destroy our temples in Belize."
"How do we know that it's Guatemalans? Can't it also be Belizeans that are doing this?"
"Belizeans, have much to do on their little farm. The time that they have to come here and dig, they have to have food and time to waste. The little
that they have, they try to make it on their little farm and get things going. People from over yonder have it worse than us, so they will take the
time out to come in here because what they get from here, could be so much for them over yonder."
This entrance was also created by looters, who did not realise that they were venturing into an Ancient Mayan Palace room.
The archaeologists who excavated the site did their best to preserve its structural integrity.
And that's all part of the design of El Pilar, partial excavation to allow the natural protection of the overgrown forest to shield the Mayan site from the
The protection that the tour guides are asking for is against the human elements, looters, border bandits and anyone venturing in the park for illegal
But, currently, there are only 4 Park Rangers from NICH who stay and maintain the park. The rangers stick around in pairs and take 2 week shifts. They
certainly aren't even as armed as the Tourism Police Unit's officers.
Longino Salam - Park Ranger, El Pilar
"Last year we did have immigrants coming here harvesting Chaya, that's the main thing that they do here, apart from illegal logging."
Jorge De Leon
"Coming to a site with security, that's not the way to secure the site. Because that just puts the tourists and puts the guide at risk because if i'm
coming in a vehicle and my security, the police, is with me 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 going to shoot. So I think the best thing to do is secure the site, so that when people come here, it's safe. So that is
one of the things we're asking and I think part of us bring you guys here is just to show you the reality of what is going on in Belize. Our
authorities need to focus on securing the sites, adequate security and training the rangers as well as the tourism police and people who are going to
be here. As tour guides, we're the ones selling the site. When some comes and we bring them here, these people will go back and they will talk about
this place, then they will send more people. But when it's not safe, not secure, the first that will happen is, hey Belize is beautiful but I will not
take that risk to go there.”
"The difficulty out here is that we are by ourselves, that's a high risk for us. We don't have patrols coming in daily, they military do links up here
twice a month. We are close to this border, like 25 minutes from the border.”
A bit of history - El Pilar sits on the Belize/Guatemalan border. Including more than 25 plazas and covering approximately 120 acres. Dr. Anabel Ford
from the University of California has been leading conservation efforts. El Pilar is also under a bi-national Management plan between Belize and
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.
Patrick Bradley, 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.
Jorge De Leon, 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.
“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.
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.
Jorge De Leon
“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.
“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.