MIAMI- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials today returned more than 60 pre-Columbian artifacts to the Colombian government that were seized in 2005 following a joint investigation between ICE and the Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO).
The pre-Columbian era refers to a period preceding the exploration of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The artifacts date as far back as 500 B.C.
ICE agents and BSO officers discovered the artifacts during the execution of three federal search warrants at various South Florida locations. The artifacts, which include ancient pottery, gold pieces and emeralds, were stolen from Colombia and illegally smuggled into the United States.
All of the artifacts were examined and authenticated by Florida International University (FIU) professor Dr. Carol Damian.
The emerald pieces, which were recovered from the Gemological Institute of America in San Diego, CA, were also studied by the University of Maine's Physics Department. The study was conducted to establish a baseline of the characteristics of the trace elements in the emeralds as measured by X-ray fluorescence to assist in the study of future pre-Columbian finds. The study determined that the measured emeralds were from the same source. Each emerald has tiny holes which would indicate that they were drilled in order to create a necklace.
"Those who think that they can rob a nation of its cultural heritage to line their pockets are mistaken," said Anthony V. Mangione, ICE special agent-in-charge of the Office of Investigations in Miami. "We will continue working closely with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney's Office to bring these criminals to justice. Our message: These priceless items are not for sale."
"The U.S. Attorney's Office is pleased to have been involved in returning these precious artifacts to the people of Colombia," said U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta. "These rare treasures of past civilizations should be enjoyed by everyone, not by a few who can pay to create private illegal collections."
"This should send a message to international criminals and looters that federal and local authorities in this country work together, whether the crimes are foreign or domestic," Sheriff Al Lamberti said.
"Colombia is proud of the cooperation that we have with the United States government and we are very happy with the repatriation of these important artifacts that are part of our cultural heritage," said Consul General Luis Ignacio Guzman. "We aim to keep working closely with the Department of State as well as with ICE to stop the illegal trafficking of pre-Columbian objects."
ICE agents arrested and charged 66-year-old Italian national Ugo Bagnato. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida handled the prosecution of the case. Bagnato pleaded guilty to the sale and receipt of stolen goods and served 17 months in federal prison.
Banato entered the country under the Visa Waiver Program, under which citizens of selected countries -- including Italy -- are allowed to enter the United States using a passport in lieu of a non-immigrant visa. He was deported to Italy in July 2007.