WASHINGTON, D.C. – An unusual ceremony unfolded recently at El Salvador’s embassy in the U.S. capital; as TV cameras rolled and journalists scribbled notes, a top U.S. Customs official formally returned 45 ceramic bowls, figurines and other ancient Mayan and pre-Columbian artifacts to the Salvadoran government.
The event marked the first joint concurrent investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and El Salvador’s National Civilian Police into a global smuggling ring that was selling these antiquities on the Internet.
“On behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the people of El Salvador, we would like to thank all of you for the safe return of these valuable pieces,” said Francisco Altschul, El Salvador’s ambassador-designate to the United States, as he singled out by name all the U.S. Customs officers who assisted in the effort.
“This is the culmination of an effort that started three years ago,” he said. “It exemplifies the close cooperation of the U.S. and Salvadoran governments.”
At the request of El Salvador’s government, the United States last March extended a memorandum of understanding that prohibits the illegal import into the U.S. of archaeological artifacts of Salvadoran origin. This memorandum is vital to the combat of trafficking in illegal goods.
“We are recovering a priceless cultural patrimony,” Altschul said. “These pieces will remain in the custody of the Salvadoran people as they should be.”
Alonzo Peña, deputy assistant secretary of ICE, said some of the ceramics recovered by U.S. customs agents date back to 1400 B.C.
“These pieces represent centuries upon centuries of Mesoamerican culture,” he said. “We recognize there is nothing new about the theft and trafficking of cultural artifacts. What is new is how much easier it’s become for looters to acquire and trade these assets.”
Peña said that the Internet has “made our world smaller and better, but it’s also empowered smugglers who illegally trade in black-market artifacts.”
He said smugglers have complete disregard for the law as well as the cultural value of the artifacts they are selling.
“They rummage through an archaeological site, discover bowls or figurines, and then sell them just to make a profit,” Peña said.
The ICE official said that U.S. law enforcement is working to find new ways to cast a net of protection around the cultural treasures of Mesoamerican nations.
Among the recent collection of artifacts given back to Salvadoran authorities were pieces discovered by Miami postal inspectors, who notified customs agents when they found Mayan artifacts in a package addressed to U.S. buyers.
The investigation revealed a mom-and pop online store in Denver that was selling the ancient treasures.
“They set up an eBay store to customers around the world and boldly advertised themselves as Mayan antiquities dealers,” Peña said. “These items were being passed along through a chain of transactions. But this store has since been closed and is out of business.”
Peña said pieces were recovered in Colorado, Florida and Minnesota, while others were intercepted before they left El Salvador.
“We’re continuing the investigation into how much was sold on eBay,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to find out who may have acquired these pieces, so we can get them returned.”
Peña said he did not know if the perpetrators would face criminal charges in the United States.
“These people are currently charged in El Salvador; nobody has been charged under U.S. law,” he said. “We’d have to prove an element of knowledge that they knew that what they were purchasing was illegal.”
Returning smuggled artifacts to Salvadoran authorities is part of that message.
“We want to send a strong message to those profiting from this criminal trade: these treasures are not for sale to the highest bidder. You cannot put a price on these things,” he said.
Rosa María Ramírez, an anthropologist and expert on pre-Columbian cultures, said her research shows the pieces that were recovered are from western El Salvador, specifically the regions of Ahuachapan and Santa Ana.
“They’re not rare at all. But to find them complete is rare,” she said, adding, “When people think of archaeological sites, they think of Copán (Honduras) or Tikal (Guatemala). But there are about 400 important archaeological sites.”
Gregory J. Borgstede, a senior analyst with ICE’s CulturalHeritageCenter, said Washington has similar agreements to protect cultural heritage with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Perú, Bolivia and Colombia.
A separate treaty with Mexico was signed in 1972.
“The point of (these efforts) is to stop looting,” Borgstede said. He added, “Once objects like these are taken out of the ground, all of the contextual information archaeologists can glean from these sites is lost. So the point is to reduce the incentive to loot and then sell these objects.”
Altschul said the recovered Mayan artifacts will eventually be housed in the National Museum of Anthropology in San Salvador.