After 15 years, ancient artifacts stolen from Mexican museum begin their journey home

In Alpine on Tuesday, U.S. and Mexican officials gathered for a repatriation ceremony of ancient artifacts that were stolen from a museum in northern Mexico in 2008.

By Mitch Borden, Marfa Public RadioAugust 24, 2023 9:16 am,

From Marfa Public Radio:

A terracotta figure, stone spearheads, bone fragments and dozens of other ancient artifacts are now making their way back to Mexico after being stolen around 15 years ago.

In Alpine on Tuesday, Mexican and U.S. officials gathered at the Museum of Big Bend to mark the repatriation of over 80 cultural artifacts — some dating back thousands of years.

Special Agent Francisco Burrola, head of Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso, recounted the effort to track down the artifacts stolen from a private collection at a museum in northern Mexico.

“In July of 2008, these artifacts and approximately 1,000 other treasures were stolen from the museum and began emerging on the blackmarket,” he explained.

Within the next year, investigators tracked down Antonio Javier Reyes to a restaurant in Fort Stockton, leading to the recovery of hundreds of the stolen objects.

From left to right, HSI Special Agent Francisco Burrola, Mexican Consul Gamaliel Bustillos Muñoz and Sul Ross Vice President Bernie Cantens.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

Federal prosecutors charged Reyes with smuggling goods into the U.S., transporting stolen property and possession of stolen goods, however, those charges were dropped in 2012.

Burrola said prosecutors will sometimes make a deal with smugglers in order to recover these kinds of objects. The majority of the artifacts recovered from Reyes were returned to the Mexican government years ago, however the dozens of artifacts returned on Tuesday were held up by a lengthy legal challenge.

Gamaliel Bustillos Muñoz, the head of the Mexican Consulate in Presidio, accepted the artifact on behalf of the Mexican government.

“These artifacts belong to our pre-Hispanic societies and belong to Mexicans’ cultural well,” he said to the assembled crowd. “On behalf of my country, I want to thank the U.S. government officials for their hard and strategic work.”

A terracotta figure, spearheads and stone tools presented at the repatriation ceremony.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

Following the official repatriation ceremony, Bustillos said the artifacts will be sent to the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs and eventually be returned to the museum they were taken from in 2008.

“We value a lot our history, our past, pre-Hispanic and as well as our Hispanic past,” Bustillos said. “This is part of a puzzle that we can show the people to help understand what we are and where we come from.”

Bustillos and Burrola signed a special certificate, officially marking the return of the artifacts to Mexico.

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