ICE, CBP and El Salvador celebrate recovery of pre-Columbian artifacts in joint investigation into smuggling ring selling on E-Bay

WASHINGTON - The Embassy of El Salvador was the scene May 12 of the return of dozens of pre-Columbian and Mayan artifacts that were seized in the first joint concurrent investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the National Civilian Police of El Salvador into an international smuggling ring that was selling these antiquities on the Internet.

ICE Deputy Assistant Secretary Alonzo Pena presented dozens of cultural items to appointed Ambassador Francisco Altschul in a ceremony that was streamed live in video to the Salvadoran Foreign Ministry in San Salvador, where other pieces seized in the Salvadoran investigation were on display. The items were all pre-Columbian, many of them Mayan, and are forbidden to export except with the express permission of the Secretariat of Culture.

This joint investigation began three years ago, when a Customs and Border Protection agent at a Miami mail facility noticed what appeared to be pre-Columbian artifacts coming into the United States through the mail and destined for Alabama. ICE began an investigation that would involve the ICE attaché in El Salvador, the Salvadoran National Civilian Police and the ICE Cyber Crimes Center as well as ICE agents in Miami, Atlanta, Tampa and St. Paul and CBP officers in Miami. Also returned at this ceremony were pre-Columbian items that were recovered in a separate ICE investigation in Denver involving a consignment store and online sales.

Ultimately, El Salvador arrested and had prosecuted a man and wife who were advertising Mayan and pre-Columbian artifacts on sales sites such as E-Bay and selling to customers around the world. There were no Mayan antiquities registered to their names, as required by Salvadoran law. The U.S. investigation is still ongoing. All of the items seized in this investigation are covered by the export restrictions put in place in 1995 by El Salvador under a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. Department of State that is designed to curb the pillage of the El Salvador's heritage.

"We are celebrating today the fruitful collaboration of all our agencies in protecting the cultural heritage of the people of Latin America," said Deputy Assistant Secretary Pena. "More than that, we are honoring the dedication of our law enforcement officers in working together to find the culprits in this Internet scheme, stop the leeching of priceless pieces of El Salvador's history and bring those responsible to justice. This is another step in our long partnership with El Salvador."

"This morning the governments of El Salvador and the United States have sent a strong message to the international traffickers of archaeological artifacts looted from El Salvador: we are determined to fight this illegal practice which undermines the culture of our countries," said appointed Ambassador Altschul. "Just two months ago, on March 2nd, our governments extended for an additional period of five years, an important Memorandum of Understanding that prohibits illegal imports into the United States of archaeological material from the Salvadoran pre-Columbian culture. These archaeological pieces will return to our country and will remain in custody of the Salvadoran people for the benefit and enjoyment of the world."

"Through the facilitation and enforcement of U.S. trade laws, these pre-Columbian artifacts will provide the people of El Salvador a piece of their cultural heritage," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Field Operations Thomas Winkowski. "Customs and Border Protection is pleased to work in partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce U.S. customs law and to return priceless artifacts to their lawful owners."

Altogether, the ICE and Salvadoran police investigation recovered 45 artifacts, many of which are already in the custody of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in El Salvador. The pieces on display at the ceremony were destined to cities around the United States before being seized by CBP and ICE. The Salvadoran ring also had clients in Japan, England and France.

As the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE plays a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property, art and antiquities. ICE's Cultural Property Art and Antiquities unit and Office of International Affairs work jointly to identify, investigate and eventually return art and cultural items to their countries of origin or rightful owners.

ICE uses investigative authority to seize cultural property, art and antiquities if they were illegally imported into the United States. It also investigates the illegal trafficking of artwork, especially works that have been reported lost or stolen. ICE's Office of International Affairs, through its 63 attaché offices worldwide, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations.

CBP is the unified border agency within DHS charged with the management, control and protection of U.S. borders at and between official ports of entry. ICE investigates cultural artifacts that appear to have been imported illegally and often show up for sale in the U.S. market.