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April 15, 2021El Paso, TX, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

HSI El Paso returns more than 500 pre-Hispanic era artifacts to Mexico

(Left to right): Paul J. Jarrett, program manager for HSI Cultural Property, Art & Antiquities; F. Gus Sánchez, superintendent of Chamizal National Memorial; Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León, Mexican consul general in El Paso, Texas; Erik P. Breitzke, special agent in charge of HSI El Paso; and Eric S. Cohen, consul general of the United States in Cd. Juarez, Mexico.

EL PASO, Texas - Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) returned 523 pre-Hispanic archeological pieces to Mexican officials Thursday during a repatriation ceremony at the Mexican Consulate.

The pieces include stone arrowheads, knife blades and tools that were illegally imported into the United States from Mexico and offered for sale. The pre-Hispanic period refers to the time before the Spanish conquests in the Western Hemisphere.

Erik P. Breitzke, special agent in charge of HSI El Paso, and National Park Service representatives presented the relics to Mexican Consul General Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León, who accepted them on behalf of the Government of Mexico.

Special agents assigned to the HSI Alpine, Texas, office began an investigation in April 2016, into the stolen artifacts after National Park Service rangers discovered some of the artifacts in Big Bend National Park. Through a multi-agency investigation, the artifacts were seized in August 2016, and forfeited in May 2017, after the individual who trafficked them was convicted of smuggling goods into the United States, a felony, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

“The theft of cultural property and artifacts is not merely a crime, it is an offense against a nation’s history,” said Breitzke. “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.”

"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," Ibarra Ponce de León said.

“The National Park Service has been committed to preserving and protecting natural and cultural resources for more than a century,” said National Park Service Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “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. It is a collective accomplishment that demonstrates our shared mission to preserve history for generations to come.”

As a part of the Department of Homeland Security, HSI has unique authorities to seize cultural property and antiquities brought into the United States illegally and ensure their return to their respective countries. Despite increasingly aggressive enforcement efforts to prevent the theft of cultural heritage and other antiquities, the illicit movement of such items across international borders continues to challenge global law enforcement efforts to reduce the trafficking of such property. Trafficking in antiquities is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar transnational criminal enterprise.

HSI is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships. The public, government and private institutions often aid HSI in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting illicitly trafficked cultural property. If you have information about the illicit trade of cultural property or art, call the ICE Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or report tips online.

HSI is the investigative arm for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, specializing in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen. HSI’s International Operations, through its 80 attaché offices in 53 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations.