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August 24, 2023Alpine, TX, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

HSI El Paso returns stolen pre-Columbian artifacts to Mexico

ALPINE, Texas — Nearly 100 stolen archaeological artifacts dating back to the pre-Columbian era were returned Aug. 22 to the government of Mexico following an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

The antiquities were stolen in 2008 from a private collection and museum in Cuatro Cienegas, Coahuila, Mexico. In 2009, HSI special agents assigned to the Alpine suboffice seized hundreds of pieces that had been smuggled into the country. In 2012, many of the artifacts were returned to Mexico.

On Aug. 22, during a repatriation ceremony at the Museum of the Big Bend on the campus of Sul Ross State University, HSI officials returned the remaining pieces. The pre-Columbian era refers to a period preceding Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the Americas. All the artifacts were examined and authenticated by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH.

“Homeland Security Investigations is committed to working with Mexico and other countries to ensure that their cultural antiquities and heritage are preserved for future generations,” said HSI El Paso Special Agent in Charge Francisco B. Burrola. “The pieces returned today are rare treasures of past civilizations that should be enjoyed by everyone, not by a few interested only in lining their pockets.” Burrola oversees HSI operations in West Texas, including El Paso, and the state of New Mexico.

"Archaeological pieces of our pre-Hispanic societies are a fundamental part of Mexico's cultural wealth,” said Gamaliel Bustillos Muñoz, consul of Mexico in Presidio, Texas. “In this case, the cooperation and friendship between the governments of Mexico and the United States have made it possible to preserve this wealth through the return of these pieces that were illicitly taken from our country."

In a June 2009 undercover operation, HSI special agents in Alpine recovered hundreds of stolen Mexican artifacts from Antonio Javier Reyes in Fort Stockton.

Reyes was indicted in 2011 by a federal grand jury in the Western District of Texas for smuggling goods into the United States, interstate transportation of stolen property, and possession of stolen goods or securities. The indictment was later dismissed, but the artifacts were seized.

Among the pieces repatriated Aug. 22 were multiple arrowheads and spear points, a Spanish silver coin and a terracotta figurine.

HSI's investigation determined that the objects were removed from Mexico in violation of Mexican law and brought into the United States in violation of U.S. laws and regulations. A U.S.-Mexico treaty of cooperation regarding the recovery and return of stolen archaeological, historical and cultural properties, which was negotiated by the U.S. Department of State and enacted in 1970, restricts the importation of pre-Columbian artifacts and colonial-era religious objects into the United States without proper export documents.

Since 2007, HSI investigations have led to the repatriation of over 20,000 objects to more than 40 countries and institutions. The repatriated objects have included paintings, sarcophagi, statues, coins and illuminated manuscripts.

In fiscal year 2022, HSI’s CPAA program repatriated cultural property to more than 15 countries, including France, India, Iraq, Italy and Mali. Among the repatriated items were cuneiform tablets, religious artifacts and architectural drawings stolen from Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

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