BUENOS AIRES - Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, (ICE) Julie L. Myers, today returned more than 8,100 pounds of rare fossils to the country of Argentina. Dr. Jose Nun, Minster of Culture, and Dr. Leonardo Salgado of the Museum of Geological and Paleontological Artifacts accepted the antiquities on behalf of the Argentine people.
The cultural repatriation ceremony finalized an exchange that started at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where representatives from Argentina and ICE completed the exchange of more than four tons of rare prehistoric fossils that had been illegally removed from Argentina and brought into the United States.
The cache of fossils, including prehistoric pine cones and dinosaur eggs, was seized two years ago by ICE agents at a gem and mineral show in Tucson, Ariz. Authorities say the fossils' return sends an important message about ongoing international efforts to combat the trafficking of cultural artifacts and prehistoric specimens.
Experts who have inspected the specimens say they date from the Mesozoic era, which began 251 million years ago and lasted until the beginning of the Cenozoic era, approximately 180 million years later.
ICE seized the Argentinean fossils after receiving a lead from Interpol that a vendor at one of the nation's largest gem and mineral shows might be selling smuggled items. Subsequently, ICE undercover agents, posing as prospective buyers, conducted surveillance and photographed the suspicious specimens. Based on that evidence, ICE obtained a federal warrant to seize the numerous barrels and pallets of fossils displayed by the vendor at the actual show. During the enforcement operation, the agents were directed to a nearby warehouse, where they discovered and seized additional barrels of specimens belonging to the same vendor. The investigation is ongoing.
Initially, investigators estimated the size of the seizure at nearly eight tons, but after the massive collection of fossils was weighed, it tipped the scales at just over 8,100 pounds. The collection includes thousands of dinosaur eggs, egg shell fragments, petrified pine cones and fossilized prehistoric crabs.
The seized fossils were being sold by a vendor from a Buenos Aires-based corporation, the Rhodo Company, which operates rhodochrosite mines in Argentina. ICE agents conducted an exhaustive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the fossils' arrival in the United States, but no criminal charges have yet been filed. Fossils, like cultural relics, are protected by the Argentinean government and removing them from that country without the government's permission is against the law.
Since they were seized in 2006, the fossils have been kept in protective custody in a warehouse in Southern California. The collection was loaded onto a truck and shipped to Washington, D.C where the specimens were transported by Argentine military plane back to Argentina.