According to the Centro Católico Multimedia, Mexico ranks first in the theft of sacred art. Every week 26 Catholic churches in the country are robbed and at least 42 percent of the thefts are linked to organized crime due to the illegal trade in the pieces that, according to Interpol data, generates profits of more than six billion dollars in the country.

The panorama looks complex due to the legal gaps in the protection of sacred art and the lack of a catalog that certifies the thousands of works contained in the 19 thousand churches located in the country. Dozens of paintings, sculptures, crowns, tabernacles, crucifixes, candelabra, bells, chalices, among many other stolen works, were left out in the open.

Father José de Jesús Aguilar, director of sacred art of the Archdiocese of Mexico, explains in an interview with the Mexican Editorial organization that there is progress in the registration of the pieces kept in the churches, since they are obliged to carry out an inventory with basic data of everything contained in their temples — which represents a first step towards the cataloging that must be carried out by specialists from both the National Institute of Anthropology and History and academic institutions such as the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“What we would have to take into account would be that there are different ways to get to this catalog, the first is that before a catalog there has to be what is known as an inventory, which is the most important thing,” Fr. Aguilar explained. “An inventory means making an account with photographs, with measurements of the work and a simple description, that already exists in most churches. A cataloging implies an academic work, it implies knowing who the painter is, where the work was made, how much it cost, what is the characteristic, what type of art it belongs to, when a restoration was made, and that is an academic work not only to protect it from theft but to take care of the work in general.”

It is an almost impossible mission to know what exactly is in the 19 thousand churches that exist in Mexico, says Javier Martínez Burgos, architect at the Autonomous University. “There are churches in community sites that have not even been attended by specialists, and it is not really known now how many works exist. It is difficult, and the gap in protection comes from the creation of laws that protect large historical monuments and they go leaving smaller objects ,” he adds in an interview.

The urgency of generating a catalog jointly between the institute of anthropology, the Church and an academic team is necessary because a catalog card would serve as a kind of birth certificate. With this registration, any illegal sale in the country or abroad could be stopped and the piece easily identified, says the specialist in cultural heritage. “It is like our birth certificate that gives truth to the originality of the piece and its value within a group of pieces,” he adds.

In the last ten years, Martínez Burgos points out, at least 200 complaints have been registered in Mexico for theft in churches, but in reality it is a lower number than the actual thefts. The specialist affirms that this illegal practice began in the ’90s of the last century to finance drug trafficking, and to date the complaints for the illegal sale of sacred art are minimal, which complicates a legal route.

“It is a universe of open windows, because what could be a crime of this type was never emphasized, the law does not classify the theft of sacred art as a serious crime and therefore there is no progress in the complaints.”

According to statistics from the Mexican bishops and the Archdiocese of Mexico City, published in 2018, the theft of sacred art increased 600 percent in the first decade of the 21st century. Between 2001 and 2010, more than 400 works of sacred art from the viceregal era were stolen, which can fetch prices of between 35,000 and 150,000 pesos.

Puebla is the state with the most records of theft, followed by churches in Tlaxcala, State of Mexico, Mexico City, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Morelos and Jalisco. In addition, the most stolen items include paintings, sculptures, crowns, tabernacles, crucifixes, candelabra, censers, bells or chalices, says the institution; the most valued image is that of the Virgin of Guadalupe….

The above comes from a March 26 story in El Sol de Mexico.