U.S. Authorities Return 523 Smuggled Pre-Hispanic Artifacts to Mexico

Investigators seized the cache of illegally imported objects in 2016

Smuggled artifacts
The trove of smuggled artifacts included stone arrowheads, knives and other tools. Homeland Security Investigations

In April 2016, park rangers stumbled onto a trove of pre-Hispanic artifacts hidden at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. Concerned that the items had been illegally imported from Mexico, the National Park Service (NPS) launched a multi-agency investigation that resulted in the recovery of 523 smuggled objects, including stone arrowheads, knife blades and tools.

Last Thursday, reports Julian Resendiz for ABC 8 News, authorities repatriated the artifacts to their home country in a ceremony held at the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, Texas. Experts think that Indigenous peoples living in what is now the state of Coahuila created the items prior to Spanish colonizers’ arrival in the Americas.

“The return of these pre-Hispanic pieces highlights the active cooperation between the governments of Mexico and the United States in the protection of cultural goods, as well as a commitment for historical and cultural legacies to return to their places of origin,” said Mexican Consul General Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León during the ceremony, per a statement from Homeland Security Investigations (HIS).

According to HIS, an unnamed trafficker smuggled the artifacts into the U.S. and placed them up for sale. Investigators tasked with looking into the suspicious find at Big Ben National Park seized the items in August 2016. The goods were officially forfeited to the government in May 2017.

“We are honored to have participated in the multi-agency investigation effort that led to today’s repatriation of several hundred artifacts to the Government and people of Mexico,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge on Thursday, as quoted in the statement. “It is a collective accomplishment that demonstrates our shared mission to preserve history for generations to come.”

As the Art Newspaper’s Nancy Kenney points out, the statement does not name the trafficker, instead simply stating that a U.S. District Court convicted the individual involved on charges of smuggling goods. In March 2017, however, the NPS released a statement detailing the successful prosecution of Andrew Kowalik, a resident of Rockport, on charges of smuggling more than 500 objects through Big Bend.

U.S. Authorities Return 523 Smuggled Pre-Hispanic Artifacts to Mexico
Indigenous peoples living in what is now the Mexican state of Coahuila created the artifacts prior to the Spanish Conquest. Homeland Security Investigations

Writing for KXAN at the time, Claire Ricke noted that a judge sentenced Kowalik to five years of home confinement, with supervised release during the day. He was also ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and forfeit the objects to Mexico.

Kowalik’s conviction—and the artifacts’ recent return to Mexico—are part of a broader story of the illicit trade of pre-Hispanic artifacts.

As Gabriel Moyssen wrote for Mexican newspaper El Universal in 2019, “Mexico continues to suffer the looting of its cultural heritage despite the national and international laws on the matter, due to a lack of proper oversight, corruption, and indifference of other governments.”

In 2016, a joint investigation spearheaded by Peruvian news outlet OjoPúblico found that nine out of ten cultural objects stolen in Mexico are never recovered.

“The official records not only show poor results in the recuperation of stolen cultural objects,” the authors wrote in their report. “It also shows that there is a lack of information, monitoring, and coordination among those who are responsible for the issue.”

Per a separate El Universal article, the majority of artifacts smuggled out of Mexico end up in the U.S., Spain, Germany and Italy. The U.S. has returned thousands of stolen pre-Hispanic objects to Mexico over the past decade—including a cache of 4,000 statues, pots, hatchets and assorted items repatriated in 2012, as well as 277 artifacts returned just last month—but challenges associated with protecting the country’s cultural heritage remain.

In February, for instance, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) lodged a criminal complaint accusing Christie’s Paris of illegally selling 30 pre-Hispanic items. Despite this objection, the auction house went ahead with the sale, as the Associated Press (AP) reported at the time.

“The theft of cultural property and artifacts is not merely a crime, it is an offense against a nation’s history,” said special agent Erik P. Breitzke during the repatriation ceremony, per the statement. “HSI is a global leader in investigating crimes involving the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property. We are committed to working with our law enforcement partners and foreign governments to ensure that individuals do not profit from these criminal acts.”