TEOTIHUACAN, Mexico (Reuters) -Just beyond the towering pyramids of what was once the largest city of the Americas, an illegal building project threatens to cause irreparable harm to the remains of temples and some two dozen other ancient structures.
The owner of the land, where construction is strictly prohibited, has ignored legal orders from Mexico’s antiquities institute INAH to stop building during the past two months, sparking outrage that authorities are failing to protect the 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.” This week the institute documented ongoing heavy construction by some 60 workers at the site, based on statements from Mexico’s culture ministry.
The prosecutors’ office where the complaint was filed did not respond to Reuters’ questions about the status of that complaint.
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 multi-ethnic city was a contemporary of classic-era Maya urban centers, but known for its own distinctive art and architecture. It 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.
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 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.
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Rodolfo Peñaroja; Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Carlos Carrillo; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Richard Chang and Jane Merriman)