Homeland Security Investigations, Consulate of Mexico to return smuggled artifacts to Coahuila

Homeland Security Investigations and the Consulate of Mexico celebrated the return of artifacts stolen in 2008 from the state of Coahuila. From left to right: Francisco Burrola, Gamaliel Bustillos and Bernie Canteñs. Photo by Sam Karas.

ALPINE — On Tuesday, representatives from Homeland Security Investigations and the Consulate of Mexico met at the Museum of the Big Bend to celebrate the return of dozens of cultural artifacts to Casa de la Cultura, a museum in the small town of Cuatro Cienegas, Coahuila. The artifacts have been in limbo for 16 years, in the wake of a major heist, federal investigation and protracted legal battle. 

In 2007, a thousand artifacts — roughly half the collection at Casa de la Cultura — were stolen by smugglers. The cache includes cordage, projectile points, ceramic figurines and silver coins, spanning 2,000 years of human history. 

Antonio Javier Reyes of McAllen, Texas, was identified as one of the smugglers. Reyes was apprehended by Homeland Security Investigations at K-Bob’s Restaurant in Fort Stockton, where he was attempting to sell “rabbit sticks,” or boomerang-like tools used to hunt small prey, to a potential buyer. The rabbit sticks were valued at $7,000. 

Homeland Security Investigations — the lead agency on the investigation — knew that this wasn’t Reyes’ first rodeo. In 2001, customs officials seized artifacts Reyes was attempting to smuggle into Laredo. 

Francisco Burrola, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso, said that a lot of the agency’s investigation into stolen relics took place on the internet. After museums report missing artifacts, agents take to auction sites like eBay and the dark web to trace the cache’s movement. “If a museum is burglarized and items are stolen, we immediately start looking at the black market,” he said. 

Reyes was charged with smuggling, fraud and the sale of stolen goods in 2009, but the charges were eventually dropped. Litigation began again under the same charges in 2011 as authorities tried to figure out what to do with the stash — normally, defendants may file to have seized property returned to them if it can be proven the items were not obtained illegally. 

Reyes’s legal counsel filed for the return of the artifacts, which was denied. His smuggling charges were once again dismissed. 

In 1970, the United States and Mexico signed a treaty mandating the return of archaeological artifacts and artworks to their home country. Gamaliel Bustillos Muñoz of the Presidio branch of the Consulate of Mexico spoke to the importance of this treaty at the ceremony. “These artifacts belonged to our pre-Hispanic societies and they are a fundamental part of Mexico’s cultural past,” he said. 

Bustillos said that the consulate was now responsible for turning the artifacts over to the Secretary of Foreign Relations. The agency will then return the materials to Cuatro Cienegas.