Diplomatic Pouch / June 15, 2010
By Larry Luxner
An unusual ceremony unfolded last week at the Embassy of El Salvador; 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 May 12 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 Salvadorean governments. Just two months ago — at the request of El Salvador — the United States extended a memo of understanding that prohibits the illegal import into the U.S. of archaeological artifacts of Salvadorean origin. This memorandum is vital for the combat of trafficking in illegal goods, and that’s why this ceremony today is so important for us.”
He added: “We are recovering a priceless cultural patrimony. These pieces will remain in custody of the Salvadorean people as they should be.”
Alonzo Peña, deputy assistant secretary of ICE, said some of the ceramics recovered in this effort date back to 1400 B.C. He gestured to the artifacts displayed on the table in front of him, next to evidence boxes.
“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. New technology like the Internet has made our world smaller and better, but it’s also empowered smugglers who illegally trade in black-market artifacts. These people have complete disregard for the law. They rummage through an archaeological site, discover bowls or figurines and then sell them just to make a profit.”
He added: “Law enforcement is working to find new ways to cast a net of protection around the cultural treasures of these nations. This occasion also honors the first joint and concurrent effort between ICE and El Salvador to stop the people who are selling these treasures.”
According to Peña, suspicions were first aroused when alert postal inspectors in Miami intercepted an incoming package and notified ICE about Mayan artifacts 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,” he 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 some pieces were recovered in Colorado, Florida and Minnesota, while others fortunately were intercepted before they even left El Salvador.
“We’re continuing the investigation on how much was sold on eBay,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to find out who may have aquired these pieces, and get them to return them.”
Asked by Pouch how much money was spent on this investigation, Peña said he had no idea. Nor did he 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.”
He added: “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.”
Rosa Maria 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 that “when people think of archaeological sites, they think of Copán (Honduras) or Tikal (Guatemala). But we do have about 400 important archaeological sites.”
Gregory J. Borgstede is a senior analyst with ICE’s Cultural Heritage Center. He said the United States signed a formal memo of understanding with El Salvador in 1995.
“That is our longest MOU with any country in the world under the 1970 UNESCO convention which tries to stop illicit trafficking of cultural property,” said Borgstede, adding that Washington has similar agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. A separate treaty with Mexico was signed in 1972.
“The point of our MOU is to stop looting,” Borgstede explained. “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.