BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK -- The illegal trade in ancient artifacts is thriving, and pre-Colombian relics from Mexico are among the prized items.
“Like almost like any crime, it’s really the same -- it’s profit,” said Tim Stone, Resident Agent in Charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Alpine. HSI is the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Archaeological theft is so profitable, drug smugglers along this remote stretch of border use the same routes to smuggle artifacts into the country.
“It’s just kind of a unique place, in that it doesn’t attract much attention," Stone said. "But it’s a very lucrative corridor."
The Big Bend region gets its name from the curve of the Rio Grande as it cuts through ancient limestone canyons. Some of those canyons hold archaeological treasures.
“What’s cool about this site is when they were doing the archaeological excavation, they found a very unique arrow point,” said Mary Bones, senior curator at the Museum of the Big Bend, as she stood in front of a pictograph exhibit.
The collection of artifacts at Sul Ross State University includes relics that are still being studied by archaeologists, trying to piece together the history of the early people of the region.
“For those folks who like a good mystery, that’s all we have are the pictographs, and no one has been able to interpret what the pictographs mean and their very unique arrow points,” Bones said.
Some of the artifacts that could help solve that mystery are threatened by thieves.
“Because once you remove an artifact from where it is, you lose so much information,” Bones said.
According to Homeland Security Investigations, thieves removed thousands of items from archaeological sites in the area of Northern Mexico near Big Bend National Park.
Other artifacts were stolen during a museum heist in Cuatro Cienegas, Coahuila, and smuggled across the border.
“From here, they’d be just like drugs or any other stolen property," Stone said. "They’d be moved and transshipped to other locations."
Undercover agents intercepted some of the items by infiltrating the smuggling ring.
“We were able to set up some meetings and view these artifacts posing as buyers,” said Bill Fort, a Homeland Security Investigations agents who helped crack the case.
Fort, now retired, said the thieves offered to get more items for collectors.
“They would go out and dig something up, or go other co-conspirators and say, ‘Hey, we have an order for this type of artifact, do any of you all have it?’ or, 'Let’s go out to some of those sites that are protected areas in Mexico,’ and they would dig through those," Fort said.
Once they had enough evidence, agents raided stash houses in Fort Hancock and seized artifacts, including pottery, arrow points, and pre-Columbian figures.
In one of the largest repatriation ceremonies of its kind, Homeland Security Investigators returned the stolen artifacts to the Mexican consulate in El Paso last October.
“This is actually a very important national treasure,” said Mexican Consul General in El Paso Jacob Prado.
“There were also some shoes - 2000-year-old shoes - and little sculptures that belong to one of the excavated tombs in Mexico,” Prado said.
The artifacts recovered from the Big Bend smuggling ring are valued at $250,000.
Antonio Reyes was indicted and served a year in prison for the crime, and is now trying to recover some of the confiscated artifacts seized during the investigation.
Another suspect, Carlos Villareal, remains a fugitive. Agents suspect he’s hiding in Mexico. And investigators say there are other suspected co-conspirators.
“It’s very, very difficult to prove after layer, and layer, and layer of smuggling and black market purchases that this was not believed to be legally purchased from a dealer,” Stone said.
Curator Bones at the Museum of the Big Bend blames unscrupulous buyers for fueling the illegal trade in artifacts.
“Yeah, you might have something really cool at your house, but you have taken away this huge history of a people that needs their story to be told,” she said.