Mexico has had poor results in recuperating stolen cultural antiquities. There are deficiencies in both the registration of these thefts and a lack of coordination among the authorities to preserve the items.

The trafficking of items of cultural heritage is an activity that cuts across countries, and connects antique dealers and politicians in Buenos Aires to narcos in Guatemala, to collectors in Mexico, to diplomats in Peru and Costa Rica. This special, involving five journalistic teams, reveals the illicit international market for objects stolen from temples, public museums, and private collections. It is the first piece of investigative journalism that examines the trafficking of cultural objects. It utilizes a massive amount of data constituting the first database in Latin America of stolen cultural objects.

An initiative of OjoPúblico, this was produced by an alliance of news teams including La Nación (Costa Rica), Plaza Pública (Guatemala), Animal Político (México) and Chequeado (Argentina).

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and published with the permission of Animal Político. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

A very clear example of trafficking in cultural property in Mexico is a church where the faithful kneel before eight false paintings. The main altar at the parish of Santa Isabel de Portugal, in the poor Mexico City neighborhood Santa Isabel Tola, is adorned with a golden altarpiece and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a scene of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ flanked by two archangels, and four portraits of saints. All are replicas of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings that were stolen in August 2008.

On the day in question, pastor Jaime Hernández rang the church bells to announce the theft. The sound of that warning is alive and well among the people of Santa Isabel Tola, as are speculations and questions about what happened. For example, the thieves could not get out the window because it is too small. Or why there were no monitoring systems in place if the paintings were so valuable? Or why the police were so slow to act, and why would agents not even enter the temple to investigate what had happened?

During the investigation, Father Hernández and the people of Santa Isabel Tola collected just over half a million pesos (about $25,800) through raffles and collections. They used the money to have replicas made and cover the altar of the temple. They feared the original pieces of art would never be recovered.

Reality proves their fears right: Nine out of ten cultural objects — including archaeological pieces, liturgical objects and religious art — that are stolen in Mexico are never recovered, according to official figures obtained by Animal Político. This data was obtained as part of the Stolen Memory (Memoria Robada) project, the first region-wide research review of the trafficking of cultural artifacts using massive amounts of data.

The review includes information from the National Anthropology and History Institute (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia – INAH) and the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República – PGR), from 2003 to the present. The information covers the theft of cultural items such as the stolen artwork from the Church of Santa Isabel.

Over the last 13 years, the INAH has accumulated a list of 4,757 historical or archeological objects that have been reported stolen. This is a federal crime. However, the PGR only has information on 67 objects that were recovered and restored to their proper places. This is a recovery rate of only 1.4 percent.

Animal Político asked for an interview with the director of conservation of heritage at the INAH, the institution responsible for the conservation and protection of archaeological and historical items that originated before the nineteenth century. The request was denied.

“Neither the ecclesiastic authorities nor the Mexican government pays attention to looting in this country,” says Elisa Vargaslugo, the director of the Institute of Aesthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México – UNAM) and one of the leading voices in the cultural environment in Mexico. Vargaslugo says what is required is coordination between different levels of government in order to end the theft and trafficking of art.

The official records not only show poor results in the recuperation of stolen cultural objects. It also shows that there is a lack of information, monitoring, and coordination among those who are responsible for the issue.

The budget allocated by the Chamber of Deputies for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage of the Nation declined in real terms by 28% in the last five years.

Animal Político learned from a public information request that since 2004, the INAH has informed the PGR of at least 333 distinct cases of robbery. However, in the same period, the PGR only registered 62 preliminary investigations or inquiries into the theft of cultural goods reported by both the INAH and the National Institute of Fine Arts (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes – INBA). INBA is responsible for the conservation and protection of contemporary art. This shows that the majority of crimes against Mexican cultural heritage never even receive an investigation.

One clear example occurred in 2014. That year, INAH recorded 11 separate incidents in which a total of 230 pieces were stolen: 223 of the archaeological variety and seven of the historical. The PGR did not initiate a single investigation during this period.

Animal Político asked for an interview with the Assistant Attorney General’s office that specializes in these types of robberies. However, as of the end of this report, there has been no response.

The Federal Law on Monuments and Archaeological, Artistic and Historic Zones establishes in Article 53 penalties of up to 12 years in prison for those who take from the country, without permission, cultural goods that are considered national heritage.

It also includes penalties of up to 10 years in prison for those who damage or alter archaeological, historical or artistic goods, and for those who trade them, transport and display without proper authorization.

However, in cases of the looting in the parish of Santa Isabel de Portugal, eight years later, there is still no one held responsible. No one has been arrested and none of the goods have been recovered.

“We do not know where the paintings are. Maybe someday they will appear in a museum in Europe, ” said Jose Martinez, an area resident.

Unknown Treasures

Mexico does not know with any certainty how many or what types of objects are in the repository of its cultural heritage. There is not a detailed record of artifacts of historical value (including sacred art) that exists in the country.

Bolfy Cottom, a researcher at INAH said during an interview that over the last decade the institution has tried to catalog all the works in the country. However, he declined to give details of the project and noted that the work to achieve the comprehensive record “is immense” and that progress is “slow.”

The magnitude of the challenge, added Cottom, increases every year that Mexican cultural institutions suffer staffing and budget cuts. In 2012, INAH and INBA together received $108.2 million. In 2016, the budget of both institutions was only $87.3 million.

The budget allocated by the Chamber of Deputies for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage of the Nation declined in real terms by 28% in the last five years.

The budget cut could continue. According to data from the Ministry of Finance on the proposed government budget for 2017, the figure for the protection of cultural property could be reduced by $8,000.

Sacred Art, Frequent Customer

Paul Achar, president of the Mexican Society of Authors of Fine Arts, said in an interview that the tiny budget for the public registry of the works in the country has facilitated their theft and disappearance. With no data on the goods, it is easier to sell and transport them.

The case of the parish of Santa Isabel de Portugal is an example. Church employees said that the cultural authorities did not track the state of the work in the temple. When the community chose to have replicas made of the stolen paintings, they could not find any official record. The community had to find images of the works in their family photo albums.

Animal Político requested an interview with the INAH about this case but got no response. The Commission of Sacred Art of the Archdiocese of Mexico said they had no available data about the theft or the characteristics of the items.

In Mexico, there are more than 19 thousand sites devoted to religion, according to information displayed on the page of the Mexican legislature.

Father José Raúl Hernández Schäfler, the head of the Commission of Sacred Art of the Archdiocese of Mexico, said that to combat the lack of records the Catholic church is preparing a catalog of the works that are in each of the temples in the country.

He went on to acknowledge in an interview that it could take 15 years to complete this endeavor, starting from this 2016. This implies a further loss of heritage: “As there is no complete, detailed catalog, with all the elements of the description of measures, photographs, then it is very difficult to give information to customs, the PGR, public ministries because you do not have an adequate catalog.”

In June 2010, the Mexican government reported that the INAH, the CONACULTA and UNAM had improved by 75 percent in the development of a catalog of sacred art under guard in the country, but six years later the sources could not confirm the existence or publication of the document.

Of the total number of pieces that the INAH reported as stolen and have not been recovered in the last thirteen years, 17.3 percent (827) are historical pieces, including works of sacred art.

To these numbers, unreported cases are added. Father José Raúl Hernández Schäfler acknowledged that the church, the most common issue is that religious personnel choose not to report robberies. This makes many of the thefts of sacred art pieces invisible.

According to the PGR, the federal government has a catalog of “Stolen Cultural Property” which consist of 539 pages with detailed information about each piece stolen as well as photographs. However, after a public information request, they said the document is being reserved for ongoing investigations.

The problem is that Mexico has seven existing bilateral treaties for the recovery of cultural heritage, but none with a European country.

The only public information currently available in detail on cultural property stolen in Mexico is that of the international police organization known as Interpol, which Animal Político accessed as part of the Stolen Memory project, an international research project that analyzes the trafficking of cultural heritage in Latin America.

The Interpol Mexico database has 320 records that include information on the type of work, image or name of the piece, site and date of disappearance or details such as size and author.

Although Interpol information is based on the same reports from the PGR about the theft of cultural property, the data available in Mexico does not match that of the international police.

Interpol, the PGR, INAH, and INBA all have a different records of property lost in the country, not only in terms of the number of missing pieces but also in terms of the details, dates or features of each.

“If we had a catalog that perfectly stipulated who is the owner of goods in the country, it would be much easier to find them, track them down,” said Paul Achar, president of the Mexican Society of Authors of Fine Arts.

Mexican authorities have no information on what works reported stolen are suspected to have left the country. The residents of Santa Isabel Tola speculated that the paintings stolen from their temple in August 2008 immediately left the country.

Currently, there is no data to confirm or refute that opinion.

Meanwhile, the INAH reported that between 2006 and 2016 they managed to recover Mexican archaeological pieces in ten US cities including Dallas, Houston, McAllen, El Paso, Laredo and San Antonio in Texas; Los Angeles and San Francisco in California; Miami in Florida; and Albuquerque in New Mexico. They were also recovered in unspecified locations in Seattle, Kansas City, Boston, Brownsville and North Carolina.

The institute has also received information regarding pieces stolen from Mexico that in the last ten years have appeared in Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Germany.

The problem is that Mexico has seven existing bilateral treaties for the recovery of cultural heritage, but none with a European country. The treaties are only with the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Peru, Uruguay, and Chile.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry refused to report on the process of recovering stolen goods, arguing that it is currently in diplomatic negotiations with those countries over cultural property.

The priest Jaime Hernández insisted he no longer expects progress in the investigation to recover the goods of the parish of Santa Isabel de Portugal. He said the current paintings “do not ask anything of the past ones” in terms of beauty. Although the stolen works were of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, “the new works are very loyal. The altarpiece restores sight and its oils made us work hard, made us aware in the community, the altarpiece was blessed again, and again it is an expression of hope for the people. “

For other people consulted, the worship of replicas in the church remains an issue. It reminds people of the lack of control over their heritage and the lack of results from the authorities.

“At first it was this very sound case, but no we longer know anything, nobody has been initiating an investigation,” said a woman who works in a bakery opposite the church where people kneel and pray in front of the memory of a stolen good.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and published with the permission of Animal Político. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.