US hands back to Mexico more than 500 artifacts considered archaeological heritage


EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – U.S. authorities have handed back to Mexico more than 500 artifacts believed made by an Indigenous culture in what is now the state of Coahuila.

The spear tips, knife blades and other stone tools were recovered in the United States as part of a criminal investigation by Homeland Security Investigations, the National Park Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The items dating back to a time before the Spanish conquest of the Western Hemisphere were illegally imported to the United States and offered for sale, HSI said.

Erik P. Breitzke, special agent in charge of the HSI office in El Paso, and National Park Service representatives on Thursday presented the 523 archaeological pieces to the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, for their return to Mexico.

Some of the archaeological artifacts returned to Mexico. (photo courtesy Mexican Consulate in El Paso)

“The theft of cultural property and artifacts is not merely a crime, it’s an offense against a nation’s history,” Breitzke said. “We are committed to working with our law enforcement partners and foreign governments to ensure that individuals do not profit from these criminal acts.”

HSI said the international trafficking of cultural property and antiquities – a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise — continues to pose a challenge to U.S. law enforcement. This, despite “increasingly aggressive” enforcement efforts targeting transnational criminal organizations.

The consulate said it will ship the items to the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City so specialists can determine their exact date and origin.

Mexican Consul General Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon said the return of the items is an example of U.S.-Mexico cooperation.

“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,” Ibarra said.

Mexican Consul General in El Paso Mauricio Ibarra, Ponce de Leon (center) and various U.S. federal officials stand behind some of the returned archaeological pieces. (courtesy Mexican consulate)

The investigation

Special agents assigned to Alpine, Texas, launched the investigation in April 2016 after National Park Service rangers came upon stolen artifacts in Big Ben National Park, HSI said. The ensuing multi-agency investigation led to the formal seizure of the items in August 2016 and to forfeiture in May 2017.

A closer look at one of the recovered indigenous artifacts. (courtesy HSI)

The investigation led to the conviction of Andrew Marion Kowalik, of Rockport, Texas, on felony charges of smuggling goods into the United States.

A federal indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Pecos, Texas, stated that Kowalik and others “did fraudulently and knowingly import” the prehistoric items from Mexico without declaring the merchandise to U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the border.

Kowalik was sentenced to five years of supervised release/home confinement and fined $10,000, according to the National Park Service.

HSI urges citizens with information on possible trafficking of international archaeological artifacts to call 866-DHS-2-ICE or email tips here.


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