Pre-Columbian artifacts seized during global crackdown on cultural traffickers

Crates filled with rare pre-Columbian vases, urns, gold amulets and figurines were seized at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport during a global operation called Athena II. Led by the World Customs Organization (WCO) and INTERPOL more than 19,000 archaeological artifacts and artworks were recovered from 103 countries among them Colombia, smuggled through international criminal networks of art and antiquities traffickers.

Many of the pre-Columbian items can be traced to the ancient Tayrona, Tumaco, Quimbaya and Muisca cultures. Members of the Colombian chapter of INTERPOL worked closely with European counterparts during Operation Pandora IV coordinated by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and Europol.

During the crackdown, 101 suspects were arrested and 300 investigations opened against organized networks looting archaeological goods and art from war-stricken countries, as well as works stolen from museums and historical sites. Seizures in Afghanistan, Turkey, Argentina and Latvia include ancient coins, ceramics, weapons, paintings and fossils. Among the pre-Columbian items recovered is a Tumaco culture gold mask, gold “Tunjos” (figurines) and jewelry.

Three traffickers were arrested in Spain and Colombian authorities carried-out house searches in Bogotá, resulting in the recovery of an additional 242 pre-Columbian objects, the largest ever raid in this country’s history. Law enforcement officers also monitored online market places and sales sites, as the Internet is an important part of the illicit trade in cultural goods. This is the second time that Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO join forces to dismantle the illicit trade in cultural heritage.

“The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artifacts, where every country with a rich heritage is a potential target,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “If you then take the significant amounts of money involved and the secrecy of the transactions, this also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud as well as financing organized crime networks,” added the law enforcement official.

“Organized crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet – either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that Law Enforcement all work together to combat it. Europol, in its role as the European Law Enforcement Agency, supported the EU countries involved in this global crackdown by using its intelligence capabilities to identify the pan-European networks behind these thefts,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director.