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FBI Adventure: Peru

FBI Adventure: Peru

Stolen Artifact

Briefing: The illicit trade in art and cultural artifacts has increased dramatically in recent years, including at archeological sites and by illegally exporting objects protected by international laws. Here’s an FBI investigation that involves both areas.

The case actually began back in 1987 in northern Peru, where the ruins of the Moche (pronounced mo-chay) civilization, which flourished from about 100 B.C. to 700 A.D., were being studied by archeologists. Unfortunately, thieves broke into the royal tomb of the Lord of Sipan, getting away with unbelievable treasures. (In terms of its archeological importance, the tomb of the Lord of Sipan is often compared to the more well-known King Tutankhaman’s tomb in Egypt—it’s even referred to as the “King Tut of the New World”).

FBI Adventure: Peruvian BackflapOne of the most valuable artifacts stolen from the royal tomb in Sipan was an extremely rare Moche backflap, part of the royal costuming worn by elite members of the Moche civilization. A backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is made of gold, copper, and silver. Moche warrior-priests would wear the backflap as armor during battle to shield their backsides.

This particular backflap, however, could not protect itself from the unscrupulous grip of thieves when it was taken from its resting place in the royal tomb.

Ten years later, in August 1997, black market smugglers Denis Garcia and Orlando Mendez, both of Miami, were looking for a buyer for a rare Peruvian artifact—a gold backflap. Garcia contacted an art brokerage firm in New York to see if he could arrange a sale. But, unbeknownst to him, the company was part of an FBI undercover operation targeting art theft, and he was referred to an undercover FBI agent who posed as an art broker.

The undercover agent contacted Garcia, who described the item for sale and recounted the story of his association with the backflap. Garcia claimed that the artifact was acquired by a former President of Peru during one of his visits to the Sipan region. After leaving office, the President gave the artifact to an uncle—who was willing to sell it to Garcia.

The agent wanted proof of Garcia’s claim and instructed him to send photos of the backflap. Garcia did as he was told—his package contained a number of photos of the backflap, along with two editions of a National Geographic magazine which had a story about the backflap’s origins. Feeling sure he had a buyer, Garcia added his selling price—a cool $1.6 million.

Garcia gave the “art broker” a few days to contemplate the offer before calling him back and arranging a face-to-face meeting. This meeting took place on September 5, 1997, at a rest stop. Garcia brought his partner Orlando Mendez with him—he claimed Mendez was his son-in-law who spoke much better English and knew more about art. The undercover agent brought along someone too, another FBI special agent, whom he introduced as his assistant who spoke Spanish very well, so they could do business without any complications.

Garcia, who didn’t have the backflap with him, said it was en route to New York from Peru and he had to make arrangements with his contact “Frank,” an employee of the Panamanian Consulate in New York. A deal was made to contact the agent when it was ready for delivery.

So, while Garcia and Mendez made their arrangements, the FBI agents were making their own arrangements: how the takedown would be executed when the appropriate time came.

Nearly four weeks later, on October 2, Mendez called the agent to say that the backflap was in New York and they were ready to do business. He first instructed the agent to get a cashier’s check for $60,000 as a down payment in the name of Francisco Iglesias, but then quickly changed his mind and said to write the check out to the Mid Steel Corporation. They arranged to meet on October 7 at the same rest stop.

The FBI agents arrived first. Then, a black limo bearing diplomatic tags pulled up—it was Garcia, Mendez, and “Frank,” aka Francisco Iglesias, who introduced himself as Consul General of Panama and presented his business card. Garcia got the backflap out of the trunk of the car. The agent told the group he wanted an art expert to authenticate the item.

Upon reaching their destination, the FBI agents pulled into a hotel parking lot. Garcia opened the trunk again, revealing the artifact. At that point, several FBI agents and detectives from a local police department surrounded the group and arrested the trio. Consul General Iglesias was released. He returned to New York, then went on a “vacation” to Panama and has never returned.

Regional Facts


Location: Western South America, bordering the South Pacific Ocean, between Chile and Ecuador


Total—1,285,216 sq km
Land—1.28 million sq km
Water—5,220 sq km

Comparative—Slightly smaller than Alaska
Border Countries
—Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador

Climate: Varies from tropical in east to dry desert in west; temperate to frigid in Andes.

Population: 30.1 million (July 2014 estimate)
Spanish (official), Quechua (official), Aymara (official)


Country name: Republic of Peru
Constitutional Republic
July 28, 1821 from Spain

FBI Adventure: Flag of PeruFlag: Three equal, vertical bands of red (hoist side), white, and red with the coat of arms centered in the white band; the coat of arms features a shield bearing a vicuna, cinchona tree (the source of quinine), and a yellow cornucopia spilling out gold coins, all framed by a green wreath.

Currency: 1 nuevo sol = 100 centimos

Map of the Region

FBI Adventure: Map of Peru and Surrounding Countries

 Map Courtesy of CIA World Factbook

Mission Status

Garcia and Mendez were charged with—and eventually pled guilty to—conspiracy, interstate transportation of stolen property, and smuggling. In June 1998, Francisco Iglesias was indicted on the same charges by a federal grand jury. He allegedly conspired to smuggle the backflap using his diplomatic status as a way to sidestep U.S. Customs on entering the U.S. Iglesias is still a fugitive believed to be in Panama.

And what of the much sought-after backflap? In July 1998, it was turned over to the grateful Peruvian government in an official ceremony. It was placed in an archeological museum for a special 30-day exhibit approved by the President of Peru. It’s now back in Peru, where it will hopefully rest safely for the next 2,000 years.

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