Smuggled pre-Hispanic relics returned to Mexico 

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK – Over 500 arrowheads, knife blades and tools were returned to Mexico by agents with Homeland Security Investigations earlier this month. The pre-Hispanic artifacts were given to Mexican Consul General Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León by the top agent at HSI El Paso, Erik Breitzke.

“The theft of cultural property and artifacts is not merely a crime, it is an offense against a nation’s history,” said Breitzke in a press release. 

The relics, which date back from before the Spanish conquest, had been smuggled out of Mexico in order to be sold in the United States back in 2016. HSI agents out of Alpine opened an investigation into the matter after rangers with the National Park Service discovered some of the smuggled goods in Big Bend National Park. 

“They essentially stumbled upon them,” said Courtney Whiteman, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. “[The artifacts] were stashed in Big Bend.”

In August 2016, agents with the investigation seized the cultural relics and arrested a person involved in the smuggling operation. According to court documents, Andrew Kowalik was convicted of smuggling the items across the border in 2017, and the relics were handed over to HSI. Kowalik was given five years of probation and fined $10,000. 

HSI is an investigative unit within the Department of Homeland Security that is able to seize cultural property brought into the United States through illegal means and then return these items back to their respective countries. HSI agents also investigate the illicit art trade.

Just this year alone, HSI has returned ninth century manuscripts to Italy as well as hundreds of other pre-Columbian artifacts back to Mexico. According to the press release, antiquity trafficking is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.

The National Park Service said it was honored to be a part of the multi-agency investigation. NPS Deputy Direct Shawn Benge said in a statement, “It is a collective accomplishment that demonstrates our shared mission to preserve history for generations to come.”

“The return of these pre-Hispanic pieces is a sign of the active cooperation between the governments of Mexico and the United States in the protection of cultural goods, as well as a commitment to historical and cultural legacies to return to their places of origin,” the consulate general of Mexico said in a statement.