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New Initiatives in the Bilateral Protection of Cultural Heritage along the Borderlands: Mexico and the United States

Clemency Coggins

In October 1997, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Mexican Embassy cosponsored a three-day workshop on antiquities trafficking between Mexico and the United States, "Bilateral Protection of Cultural Heritage along the Borderlands: Mexico and the United States. A Conference on Antiquities Trafficking." Susan Morton, archaeologist and specialist in law enforcement in the NPS and Clemency Coggins, a specialist in Latin American cultural property matters and an archaeologist and art historian in the Department of Archaeology, Boston University, attended and represented SAA. The following report outlines some of the international and national subjects covered in the 10 sessions of the conference.

This ambitious bilingual conference, hosted and facilitated by the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio, included 53 invited participants, 32 from the United States and 21 representing Mexico. The United States was principally represented by law enforcement, conservation and land management agencies, and especially, by the organizing NPS. Mexico also was represented by law enforcement, but the big difference between the two countries was evident in the presence of nine archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), which specifically oversees the protection and conservation of all Mexican archaeological and historic sites and monuments, in contrast to the historical, archaeological, and environmental issues that are more the focus the departments of the Interior and Agriculture.

The workshop explored significant dimensions of trafficking from both U.S. and Mexican perspectives in 10 sessions of three presentations each, followed by discussion. The first session, "The Scope of the Problem along the Borderlands: International Trafficking in Our Nation's Heritage," presented by INTERPOL analyst Angela Meadows, exemplified what may have been an overall problem with the presentations--a very broad range of backgrounds and interests. Because many participants had no experience of international trafficking or of archaeology, the talks often told more than was necessary for this audience, allowing little time for practical information. However, a valuable, comprehensive notebook provided each participant with an outline of the proceedings, a list of attendees, summaries or texts of some presentations, as well as the texts of all relevant legislation for both countries, in English and Spanish.

The first session included presentations by José Perea of INAH on the Chihuahua frontier and the return of objects to Mexico, and José Cisneros of Big Bend National Park, where drug trafficking is a bigger priority than antiquities.

In the second session, "Legal Authorities," Mexican, U.S., and bilateral cultural property laws were surveyed, while in the third and fourth sessions, "Basic Requirements for Effective Investigations and Prosecutions," were presented in the context of cases in the two countries. The fifth, seventh, and ninth sessions on "The Effectiveness of International Control: What Works and What Doesn't" were presented primarily by Arturo Dager (then legal counsel of the Mexican Embassy), and Nelly Robles García (director of INAH, Oaxaca), as well as various Americans. These sessions described the seizures and returns of material to Mexico and explained the 1979 McClain Decision (that prohibits the movement of stolen property across state borders within the United States and the importation of cultural property known to belong to Mexico, and valued at more than $5,000), discussed the legal and illegal possession of cultural property and the role of experts, and examined the possibilities for bilateral Heritage Site management.

Perhaps the most interesting session involved Oaxacan archaeology. Although the preservation and protection of archaeological materials is a major problem in the state of Oaxaca, as elsewhere in Mexico, looting and trafficking are not its main problems. The remote, more indigenous and less urban nature of Oaxaca has tended to protect the state, and has facilitated a successful system of 12 local and regional museums where site protection is generated by the communities that create, organize, and run them as expressions of local identity and culture, within INAH's newly loose and benevolent control. Presented by INAH archaeologist Teresa Morales Lersch, this model of decentralization, also developed in many other community museums in Mexico, was especially interesting and valuable. Otherwise, the strict centralization of Mexican authority--cultural and legal--was in such dramatic contrast with the multiplicity of U.S. philosophies and jurisdictions that it was hard to see how the two countries could cooperate, although the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provides new avenues of cooperation. With the solid foundation established by this first meeting, plans for another bilateral workshop suggest that the machinery for cooperation may yet be forged.

In April 1998, a second, more practical approach to the same problem of trafficking antiquities across the border was addressed in a workshop, "An Assessment of the Illegal Importation of Artifacts from Mexico into Texas: Economic and Legal Implications." This topic had long concerned Thomas Hester of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at Austin, and in 1997 he proposed a study to explore the character and volume of the illegal traffic into the United States and to determine what effect NAFTA may have had upon it. Hester and Harry Iceland (now, adjunct professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University) arranged with U.S. Customs for a two-day workshop to be held in Laredo, Texas. Designed to acquaint U.S. customs inspectors with Mexican artifacts, this workshop consisted of three, four-part training sessions for the customs inspectors (on the front line at border crossings) and customs brokers (who handle imports for businesses). In each three-hour session, Hester introduced the subject of the illegal traffic of Paleoindian through 19th-century artifacts from Mexico into the United States. Coggins presented slides of Olmec to Postclassic artifacts, highlighting the kinds of objects most likely to be smuggled. Judy Reed of the NPS gave an overview of the relevant laws and legal history of archaeological looting in the United States, and Tim Pertula, of the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory (TARL), concluded with a presentation of the destruction of Paleoindian and historic sites at Falcon Reservoir and along the Texas border, near Laredo. The talks were reinforced by a hands-on exhibit in which archaeological objects from most Mexican cultures and periods, generously supplied by the Texas Memorial Museum, University of Texas at Austin and by TARL, were available for inspection. These objects startled customs inspectors, who recognized objects they had often seen imported from Mexico, without realizing they were illegal. These workshops were enthusiastically supported and received by the U.S. Customs Service, as well as reported by the local television stations and newspapers.

While the workshops could not equip customs inspectors to distinguish between authentic and replicated objects, the teaching sessions nonetheless sensitized them to the character and illegality of the traffic. Ideally, Immigration and Border Patrol agents should have been included as well, since they also are often on the front line. A brochure, "Facts about the Importation of Artifacts from Mexico," was prepared by the organizers and may be obtained from TARL at the University of Texas at Austin, (512) 471-5959, email

It was especially interesting to see the reactions of the customs inspectors--their ignorance of the illegal status of certain materials, as well as their recognition that much of it is being transported. It was clear that as a result of this experience, the inspectors will be more cautious. An important, if discouraging, lesson for the "educators" was realizing that the customs inspectors are only one of three possible official interceptors at the border: immigration officials and the Border Patrol (controlled by the Treasury and Justice departments, respectively, and equipped with different computer systems) must be made aware of these problems as well.

The San Antonio and Laredo workshops, both dedicated to exploring the problems of the illegal traffic in Mexican cultural property into the United States, complemented each other in educational scope and practicality. At San Antonio, American and Mexican government officials presented their legal backgrounds and experiences to each other, whereas the Laredo sessions provided U.S. Customs enforcers on the front line with some understanding of the legal and cultural significance of their expanded role, and, it is hoped, the will to deploy them.

Clemency Coggins is professor of archaeology and art history at Boston University.

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