Four years ago, thieves ransacked a small Mexican town's cultural museum, taking about half of the artifacts of its pre-Columbian heritage.
Now, a McAllen man awaits trial on federal charges of smuggling cultural property authorities say was taken from the Casa de la Cultura in Cuatro Cienegas in the border state of Coahuila, about 160 miles west of Laredo, Texas.
If Antonio Javier Reyes is convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
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Some of the stolen items belonged to Indians who lived in the area as long ago as the 13th century, museum curator Adriana Vaca said.
"They are things that are important for us here in our community, for our history," Vaca told The Monitor of McAllen for a story in Sunday's edition.
The newspaper reported that court records showed that Mexican investigators had traced some items to the United States, where they learned Reyes acquired at least some of them by July 2009, nearly a year after the museum heist.
Federal agents learned that Reyes had scheduled a meeting with a prospective buyer in the remote West Texas town of Fort Stockton, about 220 miles southeast of El Paso. The agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement crashed that Aug. 4, 2009, meeting at a Fort Stockton steakhouse. A search of Reyes' car turned up some artifacts from the museum inventory -- boomerang-like tools called "rabbit sticks" that Indians used to hunt small game.
In court documents, investigators reported that Reyes has dealt in pre-Columbian artifacts before, including relics that customs officials seized from him in Laredo in 2001.
Although the smuggling of drugs and humans from Mexico into the United States draws the most attention, trafficking in cultural artifacts across the border is just as common, said Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University in Chicago.
"It's a pretty easy route to get things into the country," she told The Monitor.
Reyes remains free on $30,000 bond. No trial date has been set in federal court in McAllen. A call to Reyes' McAllen home Sunday went unanswered.
Meanwhile, the artifacts remain in the custody of prosecutors until after the case is completed, when they'll be returned to Casa de la Cultura.
"All we want, more than anything, is for the pieces to return to here, at the museum," Vaca said.