Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Protecting North America's Past: The Current (and Ineffective) Laws Preventing the Illicit Trade of Mexican Pre-Columbian Antiquities and How We Can Improve Them

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Protecting North America's Past: The Current (and Ineffective) Laws Preventing the Illicit Trade of Mexican Pre-Columbian Antiquities and How We Can Improve Them

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

We have a problem here in North America. A huge quantity of blackmarket goods are being smuggled across the border from Mexico into the United States-but they are not what you might think. The smuggled goods are not illegal narcotics, but Mexican pre-Columbian antiquities. The illicit trade of antiquities moves artifacts valued in the billions of dollars annually, making it the most valuable international criminal activity after the drug trade.1 The United States and Mexico feel the cost of this illicit trade severely, and these two countries have been at the forefront of international efforts to curb smuggling activities and protect the irreplaceable preColumbian antiquities put at risk.2 But as this Note endeavors to demonstrate, these efforts have not been adequate.

The reasons this problem exists are well explored.3 The United States is what is known as a "market nation"-a nation with many financial resources and a high demand for antiquities and relics from other countries.4 Meanwhile, Mexico is the prototype of a "source nation"-a nation with an abundance of ruins, archaeological sites, and pre-Columbian antiquities, but lacking the financial resources necessary to protect and develop these cultural and historical treasures.5 This high demand on the United States' side of the border creates a strong incentive for impoverished peoples in Mexico to collect and smuggle valuable pre-Columbian antiquities by any means necessary.6 And Mexico's inability to adequately protect the ruins and historical sites only increases the severity of the problem by reducing the likelihood that looters and smugglers will face retribution for their acts.7

The theft and illegal trade of Mexican pre-Columbian antiquities harms both the United States and Mexico. It is obvious how Mexico is harmed-its cultural history is being actively stolen and sold piecemeal on the black market.8 Many of the artifacts stolen from Mexico come from historical sites and ruins that haven't even been inventoried and officially discovered yet.9 Mexico is denied even the benefit of taxing this illicit trade, valued in the billions of dollars internationally.10 But the United States is also harmed. Much of the historical significance of a preColumbian artifact, such as a Mayan stelae, lies in its relative geographic location, positioning, and other clues relative to its surroundings.11 When the object is removed from its resting place without proper cataloging and recording, this historical significance is permanently lost, and we know a little bit less about our past as a result of the theft. Additionally, the looters that find the artifacts and the smugglers that transport them are unlikely to be careful to preserve the artifacts in their original state. In many cases the thieves will cut the artifacts into pieces or deliberately deface them to conceal their value in order to export the artifacts without detection.12 This destruction of irreplaceable historical and cultural relics deprives not only Mexico but all nations of the benefit that comes with a strong knowledge of our past.13 Fighting this illicit looting disrupts the delicate economy of Mexico and other source nations, forcing them to spend millions to protect these treasures and putting a strain on international relations between countries by creating disputes over cultural restitution.14

With the problem at hand, this Note suggests that the current laws and recourses available that protect and deter the theft of Mexican preColumbian antiquities and these artifacts' illegal import into the United States are ineffective at their goal of reducing these types of crime. Instead, a new policy is recommended that focuses on the active preservation of these antiquities before they are looted in the first place. This policy will rely primarily on educating the people of Mexico and the United States about the damage that this illicit trade causes and the penalties for those involved in this destruction. …

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