MEXICO CITY — The customs police at Mexico City's airport thought they saw something important on the screen of the X-ray machine that scanned passenger baggage. Oddly shaped figures, maybe a small statue, perhaps a mask.
They opened a suitcase, took out the objects and compared them to fuzzy Xerox reproductions of famous pre-Columbian art pieces. The passengers, identified as Canadians, looked on nervously and protested that the whole lot had cost them a few dollars at a souvenir shop at some pyramids.
And, in fact, the figures turned out to be no more than clay souvenirs--one was an ashtray--that can be bought for pennies on the street and in stores throughout the country.
The brief incident was yet another disappointment in the search for a host of priceless artifacts stolen Christmas Day from the Museum of Anthropology here.
The chances of recovering the pieces, 173 by latest count, are considered remote. They are likely to end up in private art collections, archeological experts here believe. A series of official errors that followed the discovery of the robbery compounded the difficulty of trying to find and recover the treasure and jail the thieves.
The heist was a blow to national pride in a nation that highly values its historical past. That the artwork should have been poorly guarded and the follow-up search bungled is embarrassing at the very least.
The museum robbery was one of history's biggest. The value of the items, which included a Mayan jade mask, an Aztec obsidian vase in the form of a monkey, the mask of a Zapotec bat god and scores of small gold pieces, has been placed in the tens of millions of dollars. All the relics could fit into a small suitcase.
Authorities in charge of the investigation assert that the thieves were foreigners--probably Colombians or Guatemalans. They don't make clear why they suspect people of those nationalities, but the assertion at least absolves Mexicans of guilt for the theft of their own patrimony.
Beyond the statement about the nationalities of the thieves, little has been said publicly about any leads the authorities may have in the case, which they insist they are vigorously pursuing.
"I wouldn't want to precipitate conjecture or promise success, but we are bent on succeeding," Atty. Gen. Sergio Garcia Ramirez said. "It's worth it because this is very important for the country."
The investigation was crippled by early errors inside and outside the museum.
Few Guards on Duty
In the first place, by admission of the museum directors, the building, famed throughout the world for its collection of Mexican pre-Hispanic art, was underguarded. Original plans for the museum, which was built in 1964, called for 100 guards. At the time of the robbery, there were only nine on patrol, and they had failed to make regular rounds of the numerous display rooms.
In addition, the guards, who celebrated Christmas Eve with colleagues earlier in the evening, were alternately reported to have been drunk or sleeping at the time of the theft.
In the morning, drinking glasses holding liquor residue were found in the museum along with cookies and cakes.
The museum lacks an alarm system except for fire.
Delay in Reporting
The pre-dawn crime was discovered Christmas Day by the 8 a.m. shift of guards and was reported to museum director Enrique Florescano. But Florescano did not report the robbery to police until eight hours later, giving the robbers yet more time to make a getaway. "We were making an inventory," he said.
The fumbling continued after the police, under command of the attorney general's office, entered the case. They didn't notify U.S. Customs officials of the theft for 24 hours, giving any smuggler a big head start if he chose to cross the border.
Even this notification was incomplete. The Mexican government failed to provide a list of the artifacts and first identified them as clay pieces when in fact most are made of gold, jade and other precious materials.
It took at least two days for an accurate list of the items to reach Washington.
Mexican investigators say that three thieves probably carried out the robbery. At least one of the three was probably an archeology expert, for the thieves left inexpensive reproductions untouched and made off only with genuine relics.
Police dubbed the robbers "Santa Claus" because, after entering through a basement door, they crawled through air-conditioning ducts to reach the booty.
Since the theft, officials have moved to increase security at the museum. Thirty-five guards now patrol the building day and night. The nine guards who were on duty have been questioned by police and dismissed from their jobs but face no criminal charges.
The navy is supposedly keeping watch at sea for the pieces while border guards hold vigil at the frontier. However, less than a week after the robbery, cars were passing the border at Mexicali without even a cursory search.
In the museum itself, located in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park, display cases that held the stolen relics stand empty. Cards recently placed inside the cases describe the archeological glories they once contained.
In place of the bat god mask, there stands a card that reads: "In this case was exhibited the mask of the Bat God, composed of pieces of jade, one of the most important deities among the Zapotecs. The piece was discovered in the 1930s. . . . The mask is a unique piece of its genre, both for its design as well as the perfection of its manufacture."
No explanation of what happened to the mask is given, although a guard will tell you if you ask.