The Mistery Of The Fossils | Translation

The Mistery Of The Fossils | Translation

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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. 

In December 2020, biologist Pablo Toriño was working from his home in Montevideo. He had specialized in paleontology, so he spent his afternoons researching fossils—organic remains dating back millions of years.

One of those afternoons, while searching for information about fossils, he opened Facebook and, on his home page, saw a post that caught his attention. 

[Pablo Toriño]: Someone saying that he was exhibiting fossils from his private collection, which he had recently bought.

[Daniel]: The publication was from the group Fossils of Uruguay, people who were into paleontology. Pablo and his colleagues were members of that group. The post had several photos, and when Pablo zoomed in on one of them, he saw a fossil that he recognized immediately. 

[Pablo]: Because I had used it in my thesis; it was one of the materials that I had also read about and photographed.

[Daniel]: It was a fragment of a triangle-shaped fossil, one he had seen many times before, when he took part in a research project at the Alejandro Berro Paleontological Museum, in Mercedes, four hours from Montevideo. For him, there was no doubt that it was the same one from the collection. 

[Pablo]: No two fossils are the same. No two bones break or split in the same way.

[Daniel]: He knew right away that something was very wrong. From what he could see in the photos, the fossils were not in the Berro Museum, but were arranged in some white containers on a table in what seemed to be a home. And according to Facebook, that home seemed to be in Maldonado, which was more than five hours from the museum. The doubts that arose in Pablo’s mind were very clear:

[Pablo]: What was that material doing in that post? How did the fossils get from Mercedes to Maldonado, which is an even greater distance than the distance from Mercedes to Montevideo? How did they travel all those hundreds of kilometers?

[Daniel]: Trying to solve those questions would involve him in almost detective-like work to solve a mystery that put the paleontology community in Uruguay on alert.   

We’ll be back after a break.

[MIDROLL]

We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Our production assistant Selene Mazón brings us this story. 

[Selene Mazón]: We’ll go back to the moment when Pablo first saw that Facebook post. But first, we need to explain how it was possible for him to recognize that fossil from the photo.

Pablo’s love for fossils ended up becoming a real passion, just like many other paleontologists of his time, when this came out in theaters:

[Jurassic Park movie]: Welcome to Jurassic Park…

[Selene]: The Jurassic Park movie. Pablo was 10 years old and he still remembers what he felt in that movie theater. 

[Pablo]: The whole movie impressed me. I have that memory of being astonished, with my eyes unblinking for the two hours it lasts.

[Selene]: Since then he began to devour books on the subject, learning everything about them, collecting plastic dinosaurs, cutting out newspaper articles, filling albums with stamps… 

[Pablo]: On my birthday I would always ask, “If you’re going to give me something, make it a dinosaur.” Christmas or the day of the Three Wise Men: whatever, but there had to be a dinosaur, too.

[Selene]: At 17, he decided he wanted to study them professionally. But since that degree did not exist in Uruguay, he enrolled in Biology—which at least touched on the subject in a few classes.

It was during the last year of his degree that he became obsessed with a particular group of prehistoric animals: the glyptodonts. Glyptodonts were gigantic, entirely herbivorous mammals that lived millions of years ago in the grasslands of what is now Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. They became extinct more than 10,000 years ago and are distant relatives of today’s armadillos, also called mulitas, only much larger.

Some glyptodonts reached a length of over three meters and a height of over one meter—almost the size of a small car. As for weight, they could weigh more than one and a half tons. However, the feature that made them unmistakable was their huge armor.

[Pablo]: A glyptodont carapace, or shell, is very easy to recognize by its shape and size. It looks like a giant egg, but it’s a shell, and its pattern, the design of the little plates that make up the shell, which are like small engraved flowers, is very, very characteristic.

[Selene]: One of the most significant collections of glyptodon fossils is housed in the Alejandro Berro Museum, located in Mauá Castle. It stands as the main tourist attraction in the rural town of Mercedes, where around 40,000 people reside. Although small, this museum houses one of the largest fossil collections in the interior of Uruguay, with over 4,000 pieces. 

[Pablo]: We’re talking about a collection of more than 4,000 pieces. It had a ton of potential. A collection of fossilized mammals, but also with remnants of dinosaurs, bones and dinosaur eggs, and even many fossilized insect nests found in areas near Mercedes.

Those pieces had been collected and classified in the first half of the 19th century by Uruguayan naturalist Alejandro Berro, after whom the museum is named. However, although this collection was very valuable, it had been stored for many years, without any professional eye taking a look at it again.

Therefore, in 2009, along with other classmates, Pablo applied for research project funding to classify them. That was his first contact with that collection.

The fossils were kept in a small room at the back of the museum, behind a glass door. 

[Andrés Batista]: I remember that the first time we went to visit the collection, we saw it in a small room measuring three by four meters at the most. A dismal place that got very humid when it rained. 

[Selene]: This is Andrés Batista, who was then a third-year Biology student. He was 21 years old and, together with Pablo, was one of the members of the classification project at the Berro Museum.

That room that Andrés refers to had a small adjoining room with a high ceiling, just over three meters high. There, on the walls, were wooden shelves with various loose bones, but also with rows of orange cardboard boxes. They were classified with the name of the species of the bones inside, for example, sloths, glyptodonts, cats, dinosaurs… But the boxes also had another feature, one that the biologists noticed as soon as they set foot inside.

[Andrés]: They were bitten, torn. Bitten by rodents. We have even found mummified mice on the shelves, lots of cobwebs, spiders, mouse poop. I mean, pretty deplorable. That collection was very poorly cared for.

[Selene]: Despite this, the students were enthusiastic, as this was one of their first formal research experiences. Box by box, they reviewed, photographed, and took notes of what they found. They had to establish the status of the pieces, confirm what species they were, update their names, and restore whatever they could. Their reference was a large old catalog written more than 60 years back, in the handwriting of Alejandro Berro himself, who classified the fossils with a number.

[Andrés]: A fairly large number with his personal typography, that made us laugh a lot in the museum, because it was… that number seemed like a glob. It was a very, very thick thing. 

[Selene]: Using the information they were collecting, they created databases and digitized the catalog of parts, which would later be used for their own investigations. Every day was a surprise, because they could come across a fossil that had not been studied before. 

[Andrés]: We were kids playing in a room full of new fossils that we had never seen.

[Selene]: They worked from sunrise to sunset, but that didn’t bother them. They felt they were doing something important: helping to preserve and give value to a historical and cultural heritage of the country, one that had been kept away from public view for many years.

Pablo was moved by each piece, but he paid more attention to the glyptodont ones. He measured them carefully, photographed them one by one, and took pains to write his file notes. He spent so much time examining them that he gradually learned how to tell them apart by their texture, their color, or their shape. He remembers a particular one.

And it was a triangular-shaped shell fragment. It was broken in a very particular way. Almost forming a perfect triangle. That is why visually it draws a lot of attention.

When he began to investigate further, he learned that it was a type specimen, meaning that it was used for the first time to describe a new species: the glyptodont Boreostracon corondanus, which lived in the grasslands of Uruguay about 20,000 years ago.

The two years of experience working at the Berro Museum marked Pablo so much that it injected him with enthusiasm to specialize in Museology and, in addition, devote himself full-time to his thesis for his undergraduate degree. 

The following year, Pablo and his colleagues worked on the excavation and assembly of a complete glyptodont shell, which a child had found near a ravine. That, along with the classification experience, left such a mark on Pablo that he dedicated his undergraduate thesis to the glyptodonts of Uruguay. He used many pieces from the collection as a reference, including the triangular one that caught his attention in that Facebook post we mentioned at the beginning.

He zoomed in on the pictures and noticed that some of them had numbers in black ink. They were in a very unique handwriting that he had seen many times before—that of Alejandro Berro, the paleontologist who had classified the piece. 

[Pablo]: And for me there was no doubt that that material was from the Berro collection. 

[Selene]: Immediately, he took screenshots of the two posts and sent them to his colleagues. Everyone agreed that not only was that triangle-shaped piece from the Alejandro Berro Museum, but so were several of the fossils that appeared there. They knew them perfectly, because, just like Pablo, they had used them in their own investigations.

Anxiously, Pablo shared those captures with the director of the museum.

[Pablo]: The first thing I asked him was whether there was a chance that those photographs had been taken inside the museum. I already knew the answer. For me it was negative. 

[Selene]: And the director confirmed this. 

[Pablo]: So I told him, “Well, we have a problem, because this individual says that he has all these fossils in his possession, and, comparing the photographs, there were approximately 60 to 70 pieces; it was difficult to count because some repetitions pieces appeared on more than one photo.”

[Selene]: The director of the museum was Aparicio Arcaus. He is an archaeologist and Coordinator of Museums and Heritage of the department of Soriano, where the city of Mercedes is located. He recalls what he felt when he saw the screenshots that Pablo sent him. This is Aparicio:

[Aparicio]: I was concerned, wondering, uh, what had happened, why that was there, and how those pieces had turned up in that Facebook group. And ah, starting to think, to figure out how those pieces had left the museum. 

[Selene]: Aparicio told Pablo that he would report the situation immediately to the Intendencia—the local authority in charge of the museum’s administration.

[Pablo]: That they knew in detail what procedures to follow. And that they would take action in this regard, and that they would keep us informed of any developments.

[Selene]: Pablo couldn’t do much more. It was all in the hands of the director and the Intendencia. He and the rest of his colleagues could only wait for any news about the case.

Meanwhile, Aparicio and the Intendencia decided to put together what they called an “internal file.”

[Aparicio]: First of all, we said, “Okay, we are going to try to collect all the information that we have available”. The idea was to start putting together a whole file and then present it to… to the courts.

[Selene]: But they explored a parallel path at the same time…

[Aparicio]: Which was the return of the pieces by the people who had them.

[Selene]: To that end, Aparicio wrote privately to the people who had posted the photos. 

[Aparicio]: Without playing the detective or doing anything like that. But establish an initial contact to ask, “Let’s see, where did you get it?” Nothing else.

[Selene]: According to his Facebook profile, he was a man around 27 years old and whom we cannot name due to Uruguayan law. He did not claim to be a paleontologist or work in any related field. Aparicio started talking to him.

[Aparicio]: And very specifically, to ask about the pieces and nothing else. They were very brief, very short dialogues, where I did realize that the person was a collector, that he liked to buy parts of different things. 

[Selene]: According to what the man told him, he had gotten some of those pieces through a seller who offered them on Facebook. When Aparicio told him the pieces were from the Berro Museum and that they didn’t know how they got out of there…   

[Aparicio]: He told me immediately that he was willing to return the pieces. Just like that, very, very quick and very forceful, and without any kind of, let’s say offer, from me.

[Selene]: Offer of money. 

[Aparicio]: He just said “Well, I will return them, period.”

[Selene]: That same evening, Aparicio wrote to Pablo saying that everything was in order. He told him what he had discussed with the supposed collector and that they were going to coordinate the return of the pieces to the museum in person. For Aparicio, the main thing was to recover them.

And, although in theory his strategy was going to achieve the objective, to Pablo and his colleagues this seemed an irregular procedure. Other than the man’s willingness to return them, they did not know much—such as, did he have a criminal record or was it was safe for Aparicio to meet him. For the biologists, there was no time to waste

[Pablo]: First, we did not even know when the theft had taken place, or whether there had been more than one theft. In these cases, the first issue is time. So it was urgent to communicate immediately.

[Selene]: But Aparicio insisted that Pablo shouldn’t worry. He said that some national institutions, such as the National Heritage Commission, were aware of the situation and had trusted the museum and the Intendencia to take the steps they considered appropriate. Although skeptical, Pablo and his colleagues decided to wait.

[Selene]: But just a month later, on January 20, 2021, Andrés, the biologist who also took part in the classification of material in the museum, was browsing the same Facebook page….

[Andrés]: And, well, I found a photo that caught my attention.

[Selene]: In that photo you could see several small, hexagonal-shaped plates that, joined together, form the shell of a glyptodont. The first thing Andrés noticed was the coloring of those pieces. It brought to mind the particular type of fossilization that occurs in a river near the Alejandro Berro Museum.

[Andrés]: It was very white, grayish, and had a texture that, even though I couldn’t feel it with my hand, I could see it, quite porous and pointed in some areas. 

[Selene]: When Andrés zoomed in on the photos, he realized that the plates had numbers in a handwriting that he knew very well: Alejandro Berro’s.

This time the post did explicitly say that they accepted offers of money for the pieces and—I quote—because “he no longer had room in his house.”. Andrés was stunned. The first thing he felt was anger.

[Andrés]: Not so much with the person offering it. Above all, the most outrageous thing and what is most annoying is the carelessness on the part of the institution.

[Selene]: The thing is that, although biologists knew of the difficulties that their profession involves—lack of financing or even interest—this went further…  

[Andrés]: We had never been faced with a possible theft of these materials that we love so much, that we have worked so hard for.

[Selene]: Like Pablo with the first post, Andrés took screenshots and shared them with his colleagues. This was no longer an isolated case. Something was happening at the Alejandro Berro Museum, and they could no longer wait idly by.

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break.

[MIDROLL]

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Before the break, we learned about the titanic work that biologists Pablo Toriño and Andrés Batista, with other colleagues, had done to review and update the classification of the fossil collection at the Alejandro Berro Museum, one of the most important collections in Uruguay. Years later, in December 2020, Pablo discovered that some pieces from that collection were in a post on a Facebook group. The museum director contacted the author of the post to get some pieces back, but just a month later, Andrés discovered another post with more fossils. Only this time they were for sale.

Selene Mazón continues the story. 

[Selene]: When Andrés told him what he had seen on Facebook, Pablo contacted Aparicio, the museum’s director, again. He wanted to know what the Museum’s response would be after discovering this second case and whether there was any news about the first. He and his colleagues insisted that the most important thing was to report it to the police. 

[Pablo]: Because the police, through the Prosecutor’s Offices, have the power to act ex officio, that is, to make quick decisions and proceed to search the homes of those involved in a case of theft of national heritage such as this case.

[Selene]: When I asked Aparicio what he thought of what Pablo was saying, this is what he answered me:

[Aparicio]: It’s possible that there are other views on how the issue could have been handled. But hey, this was the one we thought best, always prioritizing the recovery of the pieces in the first place.

[Selene]: And so he did it again. He contacted this second person and he also agreed to return the pieces to the Museum. Aparicio assured me that this was part of the strategy of the Intendencia to get the fossils returned as soon as possible, in order to later put together the file and take it to the police.

Biologists were very concerned about the insistence on this strategy. They were afraid that, by letting them know, the people on the Facebook posts would get rid of a few pieces along the way. For them it was a matter that deserved immediate, formal and institutional action.

 

[Pablo]: From a distance, you had the impression that the competent authorities, which one expects to take care of heritage assets like these, were not making the right decisions, they were not doing things a safe way and this collection was being looted.

[Selene]: No one from the museum even knew the exact number of pieces that were missing.

[Pablo]: If you have any kind of collection, or it can even be a library, and overnight some of your books show up for sale on the Internet, you not only try to recover them; the first thing you have to do is review your library fully to see whether any other items are missing.

[Selene]: Pablo and his colleagues did not know what to do. After all, they were far away, and they did not have a specialized national body such as an Association of Paleontologists with protocols to follow. Their only contact was the museum director. Then it occurred to them to ask for help from other institutions, such as the Heritage Commission and the Committee on Illicit Traffic, the same ones that, according to Aparicio, the Intendencia had also contacted.

The biologists sent a letter on their own, reporting what had happened, and stating their recommendation to file a complaint with the police so that they could take charge of the case, and asking for their intervention.

[Selene]: They also signed another letter addressed to directors and managers of fossil collections, advising them to stay vigilant and periodically review their inventories.

The biologists were acting somewhat blindly. It was the first time they had come across such a case.

[Pablo]: I admit that at this time I was completely unaware of the procedures to follow. For me the natural option was to notify the institution and then the institution was the one in charge, obviously.

[Selene]: Pablo feared that they were dealing with a more complex network of fossil trafficking, involving more than one person, more than one intermediary.

Although fossils are considered national heritage, in Uruguay there is a legal vacuum regarding their sale. The current law from 1971 is not very clear about the legality of such transactions; it specifies only that they cannot leave the national territory. Such ambiguity favors a black market for fossils on social media. 

[Pablo]: But of course, it is one thing to buy and sell a fossil that has been collected by someone on a beach or in a field or in a ravine, and another thing is to buy and sell fossils that have been stolen from a museum. They are completely different things.

[Selene]: At the request of the Intendencia, Pablo and the group of biologists put together a detailed report with all the information they had up to that moment. They recounted how they had become aware of the thefts and identified three people related to the posts: the amateur collector who posted the first pictures on Facebook, who was about 27 years old and lived in Maldonado; and two sellers, one who had been mentioned by the collector and another who had put up the second post on social media. Both lived in Mercedes, and they were 24 years old. Aparicio had contacted two of them via Facebook: the collector and the second seller.

In the profile of one of the sellers, the biologists found some photos from September 2020. They were from a visit to the zoo that is near the museum. 

[Pablo]: Which indicates to us that, at least at that time, that person was there and the theft could have occurred at that time.

[Selene]: Pablo and the biologists delivered their report to the Intendencia at the end of January, beginning of February. Until that moment, they had given their support in everything that was asked of them, but they were also impatient. More than a month had passed since the first post, and there were no signs of the complaint or of the return of the pieces.

[Pablo]: This is something we even discussed here—the possibility of moving and filing a complaint with the police on behalf of our community of paleontologists, when we saw that nothing was being done.

[Selene]: Meanwhile, Aparicio kept in touch with the people from the Facebook posts, preparing for the return of the fossils. According to him, the Intendencia took time to finalize the delivery of the pieces and file the complaint because several outside factors came together in those weeks in January, such as the carnival and the fact that three people in the legal area were infected with coronavirus.

It might seem like a national holiday and three sick people aren’t much of a thing, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about a municipality with just over 80,000 inhabitants.

But the biologists weren’t too convinced. They felt that the Intendencia had more than enough information to file the complaint. And this difference of opinion ended up distancing them. Aparicio continued with his strategy on his own. This is Aparicio:

[Aparicio]: We began to connect some dots, we also began to look at other information that was passed to us, we were putting together and rearranging the information puzzle a bit until, well, those responsible for the event were actually found.

[Selene]: In early February, almost two months after the first post, Aparicio and an official from the Intendencia went to Maldonado, where that collector lived, and managed to get him to hand over around 60 pieces. Two days later, Aparicio met the seller of the second post in Mercedes, and he returned two more fossils.

According to Aparicio, the objective had been achieved, even if the biologists did not agree with his methods. 

[Aparicio]: The process may be debatable, but I prioritized the recovery of those pieces. But later, obviously the police had another matter, which was to investigate, because there might have been more pieces or other pieces from other places. Or, well, another scenario completely different from the one we provide. There maybe could be much more behind that.

[Selene]: It was not until February 19, 2021, two months after that first post, that the Intendencia finally reported the case to the prosecutor’s office. Now it was time to wait.

But a month, two, three months passed… and there was no progress in the case. During that time, the Intendencia had asked to handle the issue with absolute discretion so as not to interfere with the investigation. In Mercedes, only those involved knew what was happening at the Berro Museum.

But in late May 2021, a Montevideo newspaper revealed the matter to the public, and the news was picked up by several media outlets. 

(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE)

 

[Desayunos Informales]: Over the weekend, a very striking note was published in La Diaria, about thefts occurring at the Alejandro Berro Paleontological Museum. Fifty very valuable fossils of great scientific value disappeared… This loss was not discovered by a museum official or by a visitor, but was discovered by a scientist. 

[Selene]: The fossil collection of the Alejandro Berro Museum, which for decades was in the shadow of anonymity, was now under the gaze and on the lips of all Uruguay. It even escalated to a political level. Representatives of the party in opposition to the party of the Intendencia—the museum authority—went to the media to request the creation of a so-called ‘Investigative Commission’ whose objective, and here I quote, would be to “investigate the theft of valuable fossils” from the Berro Museum . Specifically, the mission of this commission was to find out whether there were grounds for the case to go to the police—though it was in their hands since February.

Those were weeks of great media outcry, of conflicting statements about how the events had occurred or from people unrelated to the case. And so, to avoid any misinformation, Pablo became the spokesman for the biologists in the media and began to give several interviews. But in doing so…

[Pablo]: Somehow, an attempt was made to involve our participation as if it were… as if we had a political interest in harming the institution that is in charge of the museum, which is the Intendencia of Soriano. And nothing could be further from reality. Our role is a technical one. Our role was to report.

[Selene]: I asked Aparicio about the reactions to the news of the theft of fossils in Mercedes, and although he acknowledged that there was a lot of political turmoil that went beyond the technical, he did not want to tell me much more about the subject.

A little over a month later, in mid-June, the police summoned the three defendants to testify: the collector and the two sellers, and also Aparicio, Pablo and Andrés as witnesses.

[Pablo]: We gave our statement on how we detected the theft and made a number of recommendations that we believed were the steps that needed to be taken.

[Selene]: The most important recommendation was to go to the homes of these individuals and check to find out whether they had more pieces that belonged to the Museum. Here’s Aparicio again:

[Aparicio]: That’s where the investigations began. They asked us for various details about how the museum works. And the information we gave was so conclusive that the police acted very quickly against those people; they got to them very easily. 

[Selene]: On July 12, 2021, the police made three raids on the homes of the defendants to find out whether they had more pieces. To determine whether the ones they found in those houses belonged to the museum or not, they asked Pablo to accompany them by video call. After all, he knew them like the back of his hand.

In the home of the amateur collector, 134 fossils were recovered. Apparently, many were from Brazil and others from different parts of the world. Three more pieces were retrieved from the home of one of the sellers on the second post. According to expertise analyses performed later, none of them belonged to the collection.

Once the fossils were recovered, the three defendants were notified that they would be investigated—the two sellers, for theft from a public institution; and the amateur collector, for possession of stolen fossils. We tried to speak to one of them, but got no response.

But the most important thing remained to be solved: How had those pieces left the Museum? This is the person who would help solve it:        

[Stella Alciaturi]: My name is Stella Alciaturi, I am a lawyer and I am also a state prosecutor in the Department of Soriano, city of Mercedes.

[Selene]: Stella came to the case in December 2021, after the raids. She reviewed the evidence and statements in the case file to give a judgment and close the case. And though I was denied access to the entire file, I tried, with the help of Stella, police reports, local news, and some testimony from neighbors, to piece together what happened.

The story goes back to the early 1980s, when Alejandro Berro’s fossil collection arrived at its current location after several moves. Since then, the museum has been closed to the public intermittently, either for reasons of maintenance or shortage of staff. 

[Stella]: The museum building was in a rather precarious situation…

[Selene]: So, in 2018 Aparicio had promoted an ambitious remodeling, which was approved by the construction and architecture area of the Intendencia. In addition to a new look on the façade of the building, this plan would incorporate new theme rooms on history and archaeology, a research lab, and a space to store the fossil collection under special conditions of temperature, humidity and security.

The estimated time of the remodeling project was a year and a half or two. However, work was interrupted more than once due to the COVID pandemic. During construction, the fossil collection was removed from its usual place—the room where Pablo, Andrés and their colleagues had begun to study and catalog the fossils—and placed temporarily it in another room, one that is behind the museum. 

So, according to Stella, one afternoon that she believes to be in September 2020…

A couple of young people about 24 years old—the two vendors we’ve mentioned before—were taking a walk in the Mauá Castle when they saw that room at the back of the Museum.

[Stella]: A semi-demolished room, with a door, a wooden door, that was destroyed, so anyone could just walk in and out at any time. 

[Selene]: On the floor of that room without doors were a lot of fossils scattered everywhere. So the men picked up several and took them away.

The case ruling does not specify the details of how they were taken, but what it does say is that, after removing the bones, they tried to sell them online. And for that…

[Stella]: They had simply been numbered with little labels that said 1,2,3,4. Just a number to offer them for sale. And they had not warned the buyer about the origin of this material. 

[Selene]: The collector who published the first Facebook post was one of the buyers. The fossils were sent to him by mail, via a bus service. The payment for the transaction was 15,500 Uruguayan pesos, which is about 360 dollars. 

[Stella]: The pieces were bought very cheaply because the value they have is cultural, not commercial. And for people who are not highly educated about this, they have no great value.

[Selene]: So, for the prosecutor, what happened was clear: it was a case of simple theft. It was not an organized group experienced in robbing museums or a worker linked to the museum who was stealing them to sell. It was an opportunistic theft.

The theft occurred during the museum’s remodeling, in the middle of the pandemic, in broad daylight, without anyone noticing.

For Pablo and his companions, all this could have been avoided. 

[Pablo]: Internal moves and repairs and remodeling of museums are the times when collections are most vulnerable. And that is when you have to be most careful. And that was not done.

[Selene]: On August 23, 2022, the resolution of the case was published. Since the two young people had no criminal record, their sentence was six months of probation. They were also sentenced to six hours a week of community service for the first two months.

Because the amateur collector was unaware of the illegal origin of the material, he was released without penalty.

According to the court ruling, the restitution of 66 pieces to the museum was achieved. According to Stella:

[Stella]: The Prosecutor’s Office seized everything, everything was recovered, and everything was returned. If there was any other material that ended up elsewhere… well, we’ll never know.

[Selene]: I have produced this story from far away. To be exact, 7,300 kilometers away. Despite having spoken with some residents of Mercedes and people from Uruguay’s paleontological community, it has been a challenge: there are some silences, everyone maintains diplomacy, and no one is directly pointed out. The geographical separation only helps to keep everything opaque.

So my colleague Bruno Scelza, fact-checker for Radio Ambulante living in Montevideo, traveled to Mercedes in September 2023. We wanted to see the state of the collection.

[Bruno Scelza]: How are you, Aparicio?

[Aparicio]: Hello, Bruno. Well, welcome. Welcome to the Berro Museum.

[Bruno]: Thank you very much for inviting me.

[Selene]: It was Aparicio who welcomed Bruno to the Berro Museum.

[Bruno]: What are we seeing here at the entrance?

[Aparicio]: Well, here we are a bit in the entrance hall of the museum. We are currently in the midst of changes to this historical section of the museum.

[Selene]: It has been a long period of changes as the renovation, which began a few years ago, has not yet been completed.

In the main hall, there is a sign accompanied by the museum’s logo: a glyptodon. It mentions that the initial stage has been successfully completed, and they are currently progressing through the second. They apologize in advance to visitors for any inconvenience.

On that Friday morning, only one staff member was working. The museum was practically empty. Bruno was the only visitor. Aparicio told Bruno that the peak of visits usually occurs during weekends and holidays.

They began the tour. Proudly, Aparicio told Bruno about the progress of the renovation so far and showed him the new rooms dedicated to the history of Baron de Mauá, the original owner of the castle. There were many paintings and an extensive section on the history of the place. Several objects were on display.

[Aparicio]: We are here in what is the exclusive room of the “Antropolito de Mercedes,” one of the most representative pieces of Uruguay’s prehistory.

[Selene]: Among them, the “Antropolito de Mercedes,” a small human representation made by indigenous peoples. They continued walking through the new spaces like the facade, the laboratory, and the technical reserve. In the latter, most of the more than 4 thousand fossil pieces of the collection are stored. There, Bruno asked:

[Bruno]: And the glyptodont pieces that were stolen, are they here, in this reserve?

[Aparicio]: The pieces are here, they are here, they are already here, not definitively incorporated into the collection. But they are still in separate boxes. But they are… back here. Then, what we are doing is precisely a review of the numbering, well, to see if there are no more missing pieces, to check all those issues. But, well, that’s the job that is constantly done.

[Selene]: More than two years after the theft, there is no clear report on the progress of the fossil review.

The next day, on Saturday afternoon, Bruno returned to the museum. He wanted to record ambient sound during the hours when there were more visitors. And there he noticed something: there was a hallway that Aparicio hadn’t taken him through on the tour the day before.

He entered and discovered a spacious, well-lit room. What captivated him the most was the contrast between this space and others where additional pieces were exhibited. In those rooms, lighting issues and signs in a precarious state, many damaged by moisture, were apparent. However, in this particular room, the glyptodon’s shell takes center stage in a large showcase, surrounded by explanatory signs. It is imposing. On one side, a substantial part of the skeleton is displayed, and on the other side, a massive poster details the entire process from its discovery to its arrival at the museum. This space is impeccably preserved, arguably the best in the paleontological area.

But regarding another section of the collection, there is cause for concern. In August 2021, two inspectors from the Cultural Heritage Commission of Uruguay visited the museum, and despite recognizing the progress made during the renovation, they also criticized the state in which the fossils were stored in the technical reserve. The report they made after the visit stated that some bones were stored in plastic bags. Some heavy pieces were mixed with smaller ones, increasing the possibility of damage.

During his visit to Mercedes, Bruno seized the opportunity to engage with some residents. His aim was to inquire about their awareness of the theft. While most acknowledged being aware, they lacked many details. Notably, when he inquired about the museum, he was struck by the fact that several admitted to never having set foot inside. Here is one of the most representative responses.

[Bruno]: And what is the museum? What does the museum have?

[Neighbor]: I don’t know because I’ve never been inside. Why? Why do you want me to tell you if I’ve never been inside? You have to take me to see what’s in there… And if not, I don’t know. Well, interview another… Go on, go on, find another old lady. There you have someone else to interview.

[Selene]: After all, what meaning do forgotten bones in a museum have for our lives? Mercedes is a community facing problems such as unemployment, lack of services due to its distance from the capital, or having the third-highest suicide rate in the country. There is a disconnect between the museum and its people. And for Pablo, paleontology itself bears some responsibility for this apathy.

[Pablo]: It is necessary for paleontology to engage with the community, not just the scientific or professional community, with paleontologists, but with the general community.

[Selene]: That is, taking paleontology out of the halls or laboratories of academia to start talking to people, to society. Because, as Pablo assures, by doing so, it is possible to contribute to the sense of belonging that humans can have with the territory we inhabit.

[Pablo]: It forces us to fly with our minds far beyond the time frame of a human life. And in the long run, that sustained thought over time also helps us to question our role or our place on Earth, on the planet, and helps us understand from another perspective what place we are occupying in the world today, how we have reached that place. And also, in a certain sense, what our responsibility is.

[Selene]: When I started this story, I wanted to learn more about the discovery of the glyptodon carapace exhibited in the Alejandro Berro Museum. Later, I found out about the theft of the fossils, and the story began to transform. I wanted to uncover answers about what seemed to be a mysterious crime.

But as often happens with detective stories, the answer was always in plain sight. It’s the simplest one. Disinterest, neglect. Something that speaks to the distance between a heritage and the community that surrounds it. And that, perhaps, is the real crime.

[Daniel]: Special thanks to Roxana Ferrari, Luna Gil, Felipe Montenegro, Martín Ubilla, Mario Vignolo, Sandra Rush and Marcelo Sosa, who were also interviewed for this story. 

Selene Mazón is a production assistant at Radio Ambulante and lives in Mexico City. This episode was edited by Camila Segura, David Trujillo, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri, with original music by Rémy Lozano.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Barbara Sawhill, Ana Tuirán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program. 

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

 

CREDITS

PRODUCED BY
Selene Mazón


EDITED BY
Camila Segura, David Trujillo, Natalia Sánchez Loayza and Daniel Alarcón


ADDITIONAL REPORTING
Bruno Scelza


FACT CHECKING
Bruno Scelza


SOUND DESIGN
Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano


MUSIC
Rémy Lozano


ILLUSTRATION
Laura Carrasco


COUNTRY
Uruguay


SEASON 13
Episode 11


PUBLISHED ON
11/28/2023

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