MCALLEN, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. authorities have returned a huge cache of more than 4,000 pre-Columbian artifacts, including statues, pots, hatchets and an Aztec whistle, to Mexico in what officials said was the largest repatriation of stolen or looted art of its kind.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, which investigates art and other artifacts plundered abroad and smuggled into the United States, said the antiquities were retrieved following investigations in several U.S. states and Mexico.
Among the most prized artifacts handed over at a ceremony in the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, Texas, were an Aztec-era whistle, copper hatchets, statues and a matate - a stone hand tool used to grind grain.
The trove included 26 pieces of pre-Columbian pottery that dated back more than 1,500 years, which were recovered following an investigation in Montana, ICE said in a news release.
"The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon that transcends frontiers," Janice Ayala, assistant director of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations division, said in a statement.
The trove was believed to be the largest single haul of artifacts returned by ICE to any country to date, according to the agency. Prior to Thursday's mass repatriation, the agency's Homeland Security Investigations division had returned more than 2,600 items to 24 countries.
In many cases, agents discovered plundered antiquities during customs checks at crossings along the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) U.S.-Mexico border, and while examining luggage at international airports in Chicago and San Diego.
The 26 pieces of recovered pottery were stolen by a person who paid members of the Tarahumara tribe — a group of indigenous people in northwest Mexico — to loot burial caves in the Copper Canyon area of Chihuahua state so the items could be sold in an art gallery, ICE said.
Another 200 Mexican artifacts recovered in Fort Stockton, Texas, were allegedly smuggled into the United States after being stolen in 2008 from a private collection and museum in Cuatro Cienegas, in Coahuila state, south of Texas.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Stacey Joyce