Illegal building threatens conservation of ancient Mexican metropolis

A construction site is seen near the pre-Hispanic ruins of Teotihuacan in Oztoyahualco, in the State of Mexico, Mexico

Just beyond the towering pyramids of what was once the largest city of the Americas, an illegal building project threatens irreparable harm to the remains of temples and some two dozen other ancient structures in the path of the bulldozers.

The owner of the land, where construction is strictly prohibited, has ignored legal orders to stop building during the past two months from Mexico’s antiquities institute INAH, sparking outrage that authorities are failing to protect the sprawling ruins of Teotihuacan, one of Mexico’s top tourist draws.

Reuters was unable to locate or question the owner, whose name has not been disclosed.

Rogelio Rivero Chong, director of Teotihuacan’s archeological zone, said in an interview the police’s failure to intervene showed the property owner’s “total impunity.”

In late April, INAH filed a criminal complaint against the owner with federal prosecutors alleging “damage to archeological patrimony,” according to a statement from Mexico’s culture ministry this week.

The prosecutors’ office where the complaint was filed did not respond to Reuters’ query about the status of that complaint.

A tall cinder block wall surrounds the illegal construction, located on two plots in an area known as Oztoyahualco that is believed to be one of the ancient city’s oldest districts.

A past archeological survey indicates a ceremonial complex was there with at least three temples and some 25 separate structures.

Teotihuacan, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City, once boasted a population of at least 100,000 people who mostly lived in stone multi-family apartment compounds, many of which were elaborately decorated with colorful murals.

The city grew rich from 100 B.C. to 550 A.D., thanks to extensive trade networks and a thriving craft-based economy that produced goods including ceramics, garments and especially razor-sharp obsidian blades.

Rivero Chong said authorities have for years struggled to stop illegal building, often carried out at night or on the weekends. Local government investigators often arrive too late to verify damage, he said.

Teotihuacan was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1987, a designation that requires ongoing government protection of the site, noted Rivero Chong.

A number of leading scholars have also pleaded with the government to take action in recent days.

“For me, this really hurts,” said Linda Manzanilla, a veteran Teotihuacan archeologist with Mexico’s National Autonomous University, referring to the latest unlawful construction.

During one of her excavations at Teotihuacan in the 1980s, she unearthed a residential complex in Oztoyahualco where stucco workers once lived, next to a major obsidian workshop, not far from the three temples currently threatened.

She said the latest illegal construction is in an area just west of the Moon Pyramid, where other nearby excavations have revealed elaborately decorated structures built around plazas in a densely developed part of the ancient metropolis.

“It’s very likely that there are very large complexes there,” she said.

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