By Alex Marshburn
In an effort to curb the amount of culturally and historically significant artifacts being illegally trafficked between the United States and Mexico, officials from each country met in 1967 and agreed to develop methods to prevent the unauthorized transfer of archaeologically significant artifacts.
The result of their efforts was a treaty that was signed in Mexico City on July 17, 1970. This document, called the United States-Mexican Treaty on Archaeological, Historical, and Cultural Properties allowed the two countries to work together to prevent the illegal trade and transfer of artifacts that were being looted from sites around Mexico. It also facilitated communication between law enforcement agencies and scholars in each country to repatriate any illegally obtained artifacts from the United States and Mexico.
On September 23, 1970 President Nixon presented this landmark Treaty to the Senate for their advice and consent to ratification. In this message, he explained the significance of the Treaty to the Senate, emphasizing the benefits of increasing communication and archaeological research within and between the scholarly and scientific communities of each country.
The regulatory networks that were established as a result of the Treaty are still relevant and useful today, aiding in the repatriation of stolen artifacts and the prosecution of those who facilitate their theft. In October of 2012, ICE was able to confiscate over 4,000 pre-Columbian artifacts from looters trying to move the artifacts into the United States. The following investigations led to the discovery of a consignor in Montana who had paid the Tarahumara to loot artifacts from burial caves around Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico.
The illegal trade of historically and culturally significant artifacts is one of the most difficult types of crime to stop, and consequentially it is one of the oldest forms of cross-border crime. The steps taken by the United States and Mexico during the Nixon administration were some of the first and most important in the development of government regulation of the responsible industries in each country. The Treaty’s goal of opening communication between the art collection, law enforcement, and academic communities predated the UNESCO Convention and the Act on Importation of Pre-Columbian Monumental or Architectural Sculpture or Murals. It showed that the United States was willing to address the issue of looting and to do its part in establishing concrete controls over the domestic art market which had contributed significantly to the problem.