Monday, March 5, 2012

Seize and Send v. Investigate and Indict: Focusing on Cultural Heritage Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

ICE and CBP return an illegally
imported artifact to Guatemala.
Courtesy ICE.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) held a press conference on February 24 to publicly display the return of pre-Columbian objects to the Guatemalan foreign minister. The objects were recovered both in Houston, Texas in 2009 and from an auction house in Massachusetts in 2011. WJZ television in Baltimore reported that “[n]o arrests in the smuggling cases have been made, although federal agents say investigations are ongoing.”

Authorities are to be lauded for detecting and seizing illegally imported archaeological objects. But the claim that federal officials are continuing their investigation remains to be seen. That is because the primary evidence of possible smuggling has now been returned to Guatemala. The artifacts are no longer preserved for criminal analysis, they are not kept in safekeeping for use in court proceedings, and they are not available for inspection by potential criminal defendants who have a constitutional right to view the government’s evidence in a criminal case.

There appears to be no US Attorney involvement in this case, which is a sign that the matter likely is not being reviewed for possible criminal charges. And Homeland Security does not mention in its official press release that it is pursuing a criminal investigation. At best the agency cautions that “[t]hose involved in the illicit trafficking of cultural property, art and antiquities can face prison terms of up to 20 years, fines and possible restitution to purchasers of the items.“

Those who follow cultural property cases closely are aware that Homeland Security generally implements a seize and send policy with regard to cultural artifacts. While the agency boasts in its latest press statement and elsewhere that “[s]ince 2007, HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] has returned more than 2,500 artifacts to 23 countries …”it is silent about successful cultural property prosecutions. Such prosecutions are rare.

The Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations Program is carried out by HSI. The program describes its mission on ICE’s web site: “Returning a nation’s looted cultural heritage or stolen artwork, promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world’s cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations.” The emphasis is on sending cultural objects to home countries, not on developing cases for criminal prosecution.

It could very well be that the lack of financial or human resources prevents the development of cultural property smuggling cases. It could be too that politics affects agency decision making. Indeed, it may be noteworthy that on the same day of the repatriation of artifacts to Guatemala, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that she would be traveling to Guatemala City and other Latin American destinations between February 27 and 29. Perhaps prosecutors are rejecting these cases for review. Whatever issue prevents ICE from doing its job to investigate and prepare cases for presentation to a federal grand jury and subsequent criminal prosecution must be resolved.

ICE Director John Morton is right to note “the exceptional investigative work HSI is doing to stop the pilfering and illicit trading of precious art and antiquities from around the world.” ICE has talented investigators. But more must be done to bring the talents of these federal agents to the next level so that their cases serve to provide a meaningful deterrent to archaeological smuggling. Investigators must be permitted to conclude their cases by submitting them to receptive US Attorneys for review and possible indictment. Cases concluded through seizure, forfeiture, and repatriation alone do not have a similar impact on criminal activity.

Homeland Security press releases