Over 19,000 artifacts seized in global anti-trafficking operation

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

A worldwide anti-trafficking operation has recovered more than 19,000 stolen artifacts, including rare coins, fossils, artworks and antiques.

The coordinated crackdown involved 300 separate investigations and resulted in 101 arrests, according to a press release published by Interpol, Europol and the World Customs Organization, who jointly led the operation.

Targeting artifacts looted from war-afflicted countries, or taken from museums and archaeological sites, the push to dismantle international trafficking rings spanned more than 100 countries.

Some of more than 900 items recovered by customs officials at Kabul's international airport.

Some of more than 900 items recovered by customs officials at Kabul’s international airport. Credit: Interpol

Seizures were conducted by police and customs authorities around the world, including officials in Afghanistan who recovered 971 cultural artifacts about to depart Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Similar discoveries were made at Madrid’s Barajas Airport, where gold figurines, ancient jewels and a “very rare” gold mask (pictured top) were found. Police forces in Argentina and Latvia were meanwhile responsible for seizing 2,500 and 1,375 historic coins respectively.

Ceramics, antique weapons and paintings were among the other items recovered, with the operation also discovering apparatus used to aid traffickers, including more than 100 metal detectors.

Items recovered by Romanian officials included an 18th-century religious text and gold coins.

Items recovered by Romanian officials included an 18th-century religious text and gold coins. Credit: Interpol

The seizures were carried out as part of Operation Athena II, a global crackdown carried out alongside a European investigation dubbed Operation Pandora IV. Both concluded in fall 2019, though details have only this week been released “due to operational reasons.”

“Organized crime has many faces,” said Europol’s executive director, Catherine de Bolle, in a press statement. “The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: It is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks.

“You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: We know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet — either as a source, transit or destination — it is crucial that law enforcement all work together to combat it.”

Colombian authorities made their largest ever seizure of illicit artifacts, according to Interpol.

Colombian authorities made their largest ever seizure of illicit artifacts, according to Interpol. Credit: Interpol

Almost a third of the recovered items were discovered online, with law enforcement officers monitoring internet sale sites for illicit items. These online marketplaces are now “major vehicles” for trafficking, according to the World Customs Organization’s secretary general, Kunio Mikuriya.

“However, online transactions always leave a trace,” he added in a press release, “and customs, police and other partners have established effective mechanisms to work together to prevent cross-border illicit trade.”

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