New treasure trove for Mexico thieves: churches

With robberies up this year, customs agents are being trained to spot artifacts leaving the country.

From remote rural towns to the capital, colonial-era Catholic churches here are entering lockdown mode as art thieves loot their relics.

In recent weeks, the top brass at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), along with law-enforcement officials, have made public their worry about the rise in organized gangs entering churches and nabbing everything from paintings and statuary to decorative robes and historical documents - the rich legacy of Mexico's colonial period. While precise figures are not available, so far this year about 100 church robberies have been reported, up from recent years, say local authorities.

The rash of thefts has Mexican priests and community leaders gathering donations to install security systems. In the rural village of San Miguel Atlautla, a 90-minute drive southeast of Mexico City, the community collected enough money to hire round-the-clock security guards to protect the town's 17th-century shrine. Motion sensors are also up to protect the church's treasure: a bejeweled wooden statue of St. Miguel, the town's patron saint.

Late one night last January, not long after the sensors were installed, a young man set them off while trying to snatch the gold chains kept with the saint in its glass case. After hearing the alarm, Rolando Gerardo, a church guard, rushed to the church tower and rang the bells. "That's what we do when something goes wrong here," says Mr. Gerardo. "So everyone came out to the plaza." Gerardo and his co-workers carried the thief outside, but a group of locals wrenched the man away. "They were so upset," says Gerardo. "They tied the guy by his hands from the tree in the plaza until the police came a few hours later."

In Ozumba, a town few miles from San Miguel Atlautla, the congregation was told last month that the church had hired security patrols and installed alarms and a hidden camera. "Everyone agrees it's necessary," says Sister María Inez Márquez. "These people who rob are not afraid, they have no faith. They're only thinking of the money."

Why the increase in robberies? Mexican colonial art is in vogue, experts say. Never mind if the objects are worn, rustic, and in need of repair. "It's a change in market tastes," says Robert Brown, an art history professor at UCLA. "It's not just pre-Hispanic artifacts anymore. The folkish art found in these rural churches is now considered worth collecting. Maybe because all the great stuff is gone."

Most of the art heads either to ritzy Mexican homes or is smuggled abroad to auction houses and private collections.

Art thieves mainly work at night and, increasingly, are armed. They tend to target baroque sculptures, according to INAH. Paintings dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries are next, followed by chalices, urns, and other objects churned out in enormous quantities when Spain's conquistadores commissioned Mexican craftsmen to produce art.

The Mexican government is taking steps to keep the pieces from leaving the country. Customs agents at the US-Mexico border and at major airports are being trained to spot illegal goods. Legislators also want smugglers to face more jail time. And photographers are canvassing the country to document the images that adorn church walls and the crafts stored in chapel attics. "Right now, if an object is swiped, we might not have an image of it to show Interpol, so that makes it hard to track," says Teresita Loera, director of cultural heritage at INAH.

Meanwhile, a wall of official corruption must also be torn down, experts say. "Why do these pieces leave Mexico?" Consuelo Maquívar, an art history professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University, asks angrily. "Because corrupt individuals let them pass through customs." This week INAH announced that it is investigating ties between smugglers of colonial art and an ex-governor of Coahuila, a border state.

Few church leaders expect the government to chip in heavily on security detail. Although Mexican law states that antiquities inside churches are national property, government officials are quick to say that the church should be the ultimate custodian of the possessions. They point to the logistical challenge of monitoring Mexico's 17,000 or so churches and the estimated mishmash of 4 million historical pieces they house.

Priests regularly complain about burglaries to the Rev. Salvador Sánchez, a priest at the cathedral in the capital of the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas. They tell him they are understaffed and cannot afford alarms or security guards. And even if they could, consider Gerardo, the watchman in dirt-poor San Miguel Atlautla: He is unarmed, untrained, and earns $60 a week. He and his colleagues may have nabbed the bandit in January, but they would be little match against an armed gang.

The constraints have some priests opening churches only during mass. Some parishes have organized groups, mostly made up of elderly women, that patrol church grounds. "The government should help out," says Father Sánchez. "These lootings are blows to our national heritage. But there are so many other problems in Mexico like kidnapping and unemployment. Taking care of churches comes last."

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