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Oct 25, 2012 4:42 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News

Looted pottery found in MT in multi-state artifact smuggling crackdown

KALISPELL- Twenty-six pieces of ancient Mexican pottery has been recovered in Bigfork as part of a crackdown on smuggling involving more than 4,000 artifacts in several states.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents announced the seizures Thursday morning. ICE agents tell us the 26 objects have a total value of: $3,245, who add the items were found in Big Fork, and that the gallery assisted ICE with the investigation. No charges were filed.

ICE reports the pre-Columbian artifacts were recovered in 11-separate investigations by Homeland Security agents in Douglas, Arizona; San Diego; Chicago, three cities in Texas, and Kalispell. One of the investigations happened in Mexico City.

(photo couresty ICE / picture of a peice of pottery recovered in the raids)

ICE says that in the Northwest Montana case, a consignor had paid members of the Tarahumara Tribe in Mexico to loot artifacts from the Copper Canyon area of Chihuahua so he could consign them for sale in a local art gallery. Authorities say the pottery is estimated to be more than 1,500-years old.

Other items recovered in the other seizures included statues, hatchets and other tools, sandals, beads and even an Aztec-era whistle. Some of the artifacts were recovered at Mexican border crossings, hidden in vehicles and luggage. Some were seized as long as 3-years ago.

There was no immediate indication on whether criminal charges will be filed from the seizures.

"The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon that transcends frontiers," said HSI Assistant Director Janice Ayala in a written statement.

"The teamwork and cooperation that exists between ICE's Homeland Security Investigations and our Mexican law enforcement counterparts, as well as with U.S. federal, local and state law enforcement agencies made it possible for us to secure these cultural artifacts and to ensure that they are returned to the government of Mexico. HSI will remain committed to combating the looting and trafficking of Mexico's cultural treasures," she continued.

The items were returned to the Mexican government during a repatriation ceremony at the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, Texas on Thursday morning.

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