Religious Artifacts Draw Criminal Gangs’ Attention in Mexico

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The market for religious artifacts in Mexico and Latin America is booming, and criminal groups across the region are taking advantage.

As El Universal reports, an image of the Virgin of the Macarena, housed in a church in the central city of Queretaro, capital city of a state with the same name, was relieved of a solid gold crown earlier this month. This follows a robbery of a Virgin de Guadalupe statue in San Juan del Rio, a town in the same state, in July.

The problem in Mexico, where colonial-era artifacts litter churches around the nation, is not limited to Queretaro. Authorities in Tlaxcala, a small state to the east of Mexico City, recently reported that 600 pieces of religious art have been stolen in the past decade. The Catholic newspaper El Observador reports that the religious art robberies have spiked by 600 percent in the past two decades.

Some parishes have responded to like thefts by closing their doors whenever mass isn’t being offered. “The problem is that the temples don’t have security,” Miguel Angel Reyes, an official with the diocese of Guadalajara, told Notimex in a recent interview. “They aren’t equipped and on top of that they are open all day because the reality is they trust the people in the community.”

Reyes also said that the thieves have often shown up to churches as workers specialized in restoring old artifacts, with false references so as to secure entrance. Typically such criminals have specialized knowledge of which items are valuable, though as the robberies have become more common, the  less skilled thieves who grab whatever looks shiny have also proliferated.

The stolen items are recovered only in rare circumstances; of the 60 annual robberies in Tlaxcala, on average just one item is later found by the authorities. According to May 2010 reporting from Periodico Digital on the state of Puebla, whose cathedral has one of the most impressive collections of religious art in the country, only three of the 720 pieces stolen in the previous decade had been recovered.

According to El Universal, Mexican authorities estimate that 42 percent of the robberies are linked to organized crime groups, which have expanded beyond drug trafficking in recent years into such diverse fields as extortion, kidnapping, and oil theft. The market is such that, according to a 2009 report from Jornada, the theft of religious items is the second most profitable illegal enterprise in the country after drug trafficking, though there was little supporting data to back up the claim other than the claims of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

The problem is equally pronounced, if not more so, outside of Mexico. In the Peruvian city of Cusco, for example, 659 religious artifacts were stolen from 2006 to 2009. In Colombia, a special unit of the Judicial Police Directorate, working in conjunction with Interpol, was formed to combat the robbery of religious art, especially prevalent in rural areas where the state presence is minimal. The task force later announced that it had uncovered trafficking networks that specialized in transporting Colombian artifacts to buyers in Spain and Denmark.

However, despite the growth of a robust market for religious artifacts, this seems unlikely to become a major revenue stream for most criminal groups, absent a radical recomposition of the Mexican underworld. Most pieces of art sell only for several thousand dollars, and even the most sought-after items typically don’t sell more than $40,000 or $50,000.

This is enough to turn illicit art sales into an industry worth several million or scores of millions of dollars annually. While that is a significant sum, it is dwarfed by the billions available principally in the drug trade, as well as in human trafficking, counterfeit retail, extortion, and other activities. Consequently, despite the growth of robbery of religious artifacts, the practice is not likely to become anything more than a niche activity for Latin American criminal groups.

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