Saturday, 27 October 2012

Mexican Artefact Repatriation: ICE Media Circus

Recently there has been quite a bit of tension on the US-Mexican border, especially after a number of shootings of Mexicans by U.S. Border Patrol agents. In statements made at a widely-publicised ICE-sponsored  "repatriation ceremony" of amassed seized smuggled or stolen artefacts at the Consulate of Mexico in El Paso, Texas on Thursday Oct. 25, one of the largest-ever repatriations between the two countries:
officials emphasized the healthy partnership between the two countries, at least when it comes to hunting down and returning stolen art. Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Director Janice Ayala touted the “teamwork and cooperation” between the countries, while Mexican Consul General Jacob Prado thanked U.S. officials for returning items “which are a part of the cultural heritage and the historical memory of the people of Mexico.”
Among the items on display in this show of international friendship were more than 4,000 pre-Columbian artifacts including: at least five pre-Columbian statues (one a Chinesco Nayarit figurine),  26 pre-Columbian pottery vessels, Pre-Columbian metates, manos, an Aztec-era whistle, copper hatchets  etc. 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.

The objects concerned were recovered in 11 separate seizures and undercover and sting operations  by special agents of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) with assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at various ports of entry. Many of the objects were uncovered during a string of raids in West Texas in 2009. Amongt the seizures discussed in the news items about this display the following are discussed:

1-2) Naco, near Douglas, Ariz.; "An undeclared pre-Columbian metate – grinding stone – was discovered in the vehicle of two individuals entering the United States from Mexico at Naco, Ariz. Also discovered at the Naco Port of Entry, was another metate with four manos – a stone used as the upper millstone for grinding foods – lying in the bed of a person's truck, who said he stayed at his grandfather's ranch during his visit to Mexico and was bringing back clothes and tools".

3-4) Del Rio (Texas) Port of Entry from Mexico: "A pre-Columbian undeclared clay statue was discovered hidden in the luggage area of a person's vehicle entering the US.[...]  another pre-Columbian statuette was "discovered along with an Aztec Eagle whistle concealed in the dashboard of another person's vehicle entering the Del Rio Port of Entry".

5) Laredo, Texas; "Three pre-Columbian statues were discovered during a CBP agricultural inspection of an individual who arrived on a bus at the Lincoln-Juarez Bridge Port of Entry".

6) San Diego, Calif. "Two copper hatchet artifacts were discovered in cargo received at San Diego International Airport via Sweden".

7-8) Chicago; "While screening express mail at the Chicago Port of Entry, a CBP officer intercepted a parcel for inspection containing a falsely declared clay anthropomorphic statue dating to the early first millennium A.D. CBP officers, assigned to the Chicago Port of Entry, also discovered a shipment containing a Chinesco Nayarit figurine exported from the United States".

9) Kalispell, Mont.; HSI special agents discovered that  a US dealer had paid members of the Tarahumara, a tribe in northwestern Mexico, to rob items from ancestral burial caves dating back more than 1,500 years in the Copper Canyon area of Chihuahua, Mexico, and the objects were being sold through the local art gallery. The agents seized 26 pieces of pottery following an investigation and "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".  As Larry Rothfield notes, in contrast to what most antiquity dealers and collectors would want you to believe, this case:
sheds important light on the way in which archaeological looting in poorer "source" countries is driven by the demand side in wealthy "market" countries -- and not just spontaneously, but in some cases intentionally as an organized business 
 10) Most of the relics returned on Thursday  resulted from a string of seizures in West Texas in 2009, following a tip about relics illegally entering the US at a border crossing in Presidio, Texas. As a result of the tip-off undercover agents were led to Fort Stockton, a Texas town about 230 miles south east of El Paso. Here they reportedly found a man who was in possession of a number of artefacts including 200 that it was alleged had been stolen in the Mexican border state of Coahuila.
Homeland Security special agent Dennis Ulrich said authorities executing a search warrant in Fort Stockton found the largest portion of the cache. And further investigation revealed that the two men who organised the artefacts' smuggling were involved in drug trafficking from Mexico to the US, he said. Mr Sanchez said some of the relics found in Fort Stockton were stolen from a private collection at the Cuatro Cienagas museum in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The items also include arrows, hunting bows and even extremely well conserved textile items such as sandals and pieces of baskets.
[...]  Later in November 2009, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers assisting HSI special agents stopped the same individual in a vehicle for a traffic violation and observed artifacts in the vehicle that the driver admitted were undeclared when he entered the United States at the Presidio (Texas) Port of Entry. After HSI special agents seized the artifacts, they opened a second investigation associated with the seizure of more than 4,000 artifacts including arrowheads, bows, rabbit sticks, axes, spears, tomahawks, statuettes, sandals and beads, all relating to the same conspiracy.
There is also mention of a raid in Mexico City, in coordination with Mexican law enforcement agencies.

Stolen antiquities are just one of the illegal commodities smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border, others include illegal migrants, drugs, and, most recently, reptiles.

A clay statue was among some seized artifacts
returned to Mexico (AP/The El Paso Times, Mark Lambie)
ICE News release: 'ICE returns stolen and looted archeological art and antiquities to Mexico', El Paso, TX October 25, 2012.
Gina Benitez, 'Thousands of looted artifacts returned to Mexico' KFOX El Paso, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012

Richard Fausset, 'US returns more than 4000 stolen antiquities to Mexico' Los Angeles Times 25th Oct 2012.

Press Association ' Looted relics returned to Mexico', Irish Independent October 26 2012

Art Daily, 'ICE returns stolen and looted archeological art and antiquities to Mexico ', Art-Daily October 26, 2012 (simply a republication verbatim of the ICE press release).

Jared Taylor, 'US returns huge haul of pre-Columbian artifacts to Mexico', Chicago Tribune, 26th Oct 2012.

John Rosman, 'US Returns 4000 Stolen Antiquities To Mexico' KPBS October 26, 2012

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