BELIZE CITY – The penalty for the near-total destruction of one of the biggest Mayan pyramids in Belize -- which the government called "unforgivable" and left archaeologists speechless -- may leave conservationists speechless: just $5,000.
Police have launched an investigation and anyone found responsible could face five to 10 years in imprison, a fine of about $5,000 or both.
To avoid the fee, fingers are frantically pointing in the Caribbean country, with the owner of De' Mar's Stone Co., the road-building company that has been blamed for the incident, saying the landowner gave him permission to extract the material.
Businessman Denny Grijalva said the landowner had allowed excavations on his property for more than a decade.
In 1998, then businessmen Alfredo Martinez extracted stones from the same area also to build a road. Martinez is now Belize's ambassador in neighboring Guatemala.
Archeologists in Belize and around the world expressed outrage at the demolition of the Nohmul complex in northern Belize to extract crushed rock.
Nohmul sat in the middle of a privately owned sugar cane field, and lacked the even stone sides frequently seen in reconstructed or better-preserved pyramids.
The head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, said the builders could not possibly have mistaken the pyramid mound, which is about 100 feet tall, for a natural hill because the ruins were well-known and the landscape there is naturally flat.
Grijalva said in a statement that the foreman at his De' Mar's Stone Co. picked the pyramid mound for digging out rock after the chairman of Douglas Village, where his company was building and repairing roads, didn't like the material they first showed him.
Workers excavated all day last Thursday, Grijalva said. They stopped digging the next day after several officials from the National Institute of History and Culture instructed them to stop, he said.
"Recognizing that the buck stops at my desk, I share the public's concern and indeed condemnation at the unfolding of this very unfortunate incident," Grijalva said. "I am committed to fully cooperate with the authorities in their investigation into this regrettable incident."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.