Spain recently returned to Colombia 691 indigenous artifacts that were smuggled out of the South American nation by a renowned drug trade money launderer in a move that highlights the growing ties between the highly specialized world of art and artifact theft and that of drug-trafficking organizations.
The mainly ceramic items, of enormous archaeological value and dating back to 1400 BC, were returned after a protracted legal battle between the two countries that lasted around 11 years. The artifacts had been stored at the Museum of America in Madrid.
Spanish authorities seized the artifacts – including funeral urns, musical instruments and ceramic sculptures – during a police operation and claim that the man who smuggled the ceramics across the Atlantic had worked laundering money for drug cartels.
Reports of the artifact seizure provided no other details of the alleged money launderer.
“There is often a surprising overlap between the highly specialized criminal worlds of artifact and art theft and the underworld heavyweights in the drug trade,” wrote Marguerite Cawley for the Latin American security website Insight Crime. “A connection [that was] recently featured in Donna Tartt's 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel 'The Goldfinch,' in which a youth removes a famous work of art from the wreckage of a bombed museum and the painting is later traded between international drug dealers.”
Art or cultural theft has become increasingly popular with drug traffickers as a way to launder money or as collateral in major drug deals, given that artworks are considered easy to smuggle and fetch high prices on the international market.
In Mexico, drug trafficking organizations have diversified their business interests by becoming involved in the trade of religious artifacts — 42 percent of such thefts are reportedly linked to organized crime, according to Mexico's El Universal.
In Ecuador a single ancient artifact from the country can be worth as much as $8,000 on the international black market, authorities said.
Hundreds of these crimes occur every year with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimating that the global trade of illicit cultural artifacts is worth as much as $8 billion annually.