Drug Addiction Fuels Looting of Antiquities

An article in the March/April edition of Archaeology magazine, titled “Drugs, Guns and Dirt,” highlights the surprisingly intimate connection between drug addiction and the looting of archaeological sites in the American Southwest. According to the the article, federal law enforcement agents and archaeologists have found that looted antiquities–particularly Native American artifacts in high demand–are being sold for money to manufacture and purchase large quantities of the dangerously addictive drug, methamphetamine (“meth”). Recently, federal raids on suspected meth laboratories have led to the discovery of clandestine looting operations carried out by the same individuals. The connection between meth production and archaeological looting shows the overlap between the two illegal markets for drugs and antiquities.

These drug-addicted looters, dubbed “twiggers” (a combination of tweaker and digger), are referred to in the article as “the perfect, tireless looting workforce”:

Meth addicts build a tolerance, so they have to take more and more–and need more money–to continue achieving a high. Meth provides a surplus of energy that tweakers need to work off, as well as increased focus and obsessive sorting behaviors: they might stare at a patch of carpet for hours, meticulously clean and reclean a kitchen, or repeatedly dismantle and rebuild home electronics. The energizing and obsessive effects make it fun, almost pleasurable, for tweakers to do the tedious work of artifact hunting. They have the steam to wander sites and dig holes for hours, the focus to scan the ground closely, and the compulsive need to find more and more. According to those who have spoken to twiggers directly, the ability to sell artifacts seems almost secondary to the addictive thrill of discovery.

Unfortunately, for the archaeological resource twiggers have a massively destructive style of digging, in which they ignore entirely the context of their finds and forcefully pull the objects from the ground, often damaging the fragile artifacts before they can even be sold. Obviously, when all one is looking to do is launder an object for more money/drugs, the last thing one thinks about is the condition or history of that object. In the American Southwest, the ease with which twiggers can operate and fuel their addiction is astounding. As noted in the article, “Artifacts can be looted from remote public lands near impoverished communities with acute drug problems, and there is an infrastructure of shady galleries and trading posts that can ‘launder’ them for sale.” As a result, all archaeological sites and resources are increasingly in danger.

Moreover, authorities have found it is extremely difficult to convict twiggers for their archaeological and narcotics crimes. Federal agents in the American Southwest are few in number, and their job is to prove that artifacts were removed illegally from federal land, an expanse that covers hundreds of square miles. Oftentimes, evidence proving that such artifacts were excavated against cultural resource law (e.g. Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979) is not available, and in these cases the objects are left as anonymous, untraceable victims of a multi-pronged criminal operation. Then, when drugs enter the picture, the crimes against archaeological heritage are given only passing attention. Federal narcotics agents are rarely instructed on how to recognize and assess stolen antiquities (some call in cultural “specialists,” like archaeologists) and even when they are told how to handle antiquities, prosecutors will encourage the looting crimes to be dropped in lieu of more serious drug crimes.

For those of us concerned with the harmful effects on cultural heritage, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the meth-looting connection is that looting is considered a “victimless crime.” Nowhere in the article is there mention of the cultural rights to this stolen property. Clearly, when artifacts are secretly looted and subsequently sold for cheap on a small, localized market, rightful ownership to them is sometimes impossible to determine. However, a great injustice is being committed against the heritage of all mankind. Similar drug-antiquities networks exist elsewhere in the world (e.g. pre-Columbian artifacts and cocaine; ancient near eastern artifacts and opium), and we should to be gravely intimidated when the network combines archaeological looting and international drug-trafficking. (There have even been cases where antiquities have been used as containers for smuggling drugs!) The link between cultural property and narcotics crimes is real and observable, as evidenced by this article, and I think there is ample reason to argue that neither should be viewed with more or less severity. Indeed, crimes against culture and cultural property have far-reaching effects even beyond the meth addict’s lungs and nasal passages.

[See an earlier post by Culture in Peril, “Subsistence Digging is (Not) Looting?,” where I examine the practice of subsistence digging by impoverished peoples to supplement their meager farming income. One might say an even more disastrous and negative form of subsistence digging is practiced by twiggers!]

This entry was posted in archaeology, cultural property, drugs, heritage, looting, subsistence digging. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Drug Addiction Fuels Looting of Antiquities

  1. Drug Rehab says:

    This is a tremendous article. Not many people focus on the kind of societal issues such as this that occur as a result of drug addiction and drug abuse. Doctor shopping, stealing money, "hocking" possessions are all part of a big problem that lives just below the surface of what we see.

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