Authorities in Mexico have seized almost 200 potentially valuable works of art over a six-year period, shedding light on a lesser-known but lucrative source of income and money laundering for global trafficking networks.
Between December 2006 and November 2012, Mexico’s Inspector General's office seized a total of 191 artworks, including pieces attributed to artists like Jose Maria Velasco and Diego Rivera, reported Proceso. According to Mexican officials, the works were turned over to the national Asset Management and Disposal Service (SAE), because their former owners had obtained them illegally.
Although the SAE has catalogued the majority of the works, they have not been independently authenticated by art experts, and the organization would not release any early evaluation of their potential value should they turn out to be originals. The works will remain in government custody until the conclusion of investigations and any judicial action against their owners, when they will be put up for auction.
InSight Crime Analysis
Stealing and selling cultural property is an often overlooked but highly lucrative form of trafficking, with the global trade of illicit cultural artifacts worth as much as $8 billion annually, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Latin American countries, with their rich history of pre-Columbian and religious artifacts, have struggled to combat looting of cultural items, which are often taken from illegal excavations by poor workers and sold to buyers on the local black market or to transnational trafficking groups. The extremely high prices of the art market also make it particularly vulnerable to large-scale money laundering operations.
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Art trafficking has a long history in the organized crime world, with kingpins like Colombian paramilitary cheiftain Fidel Castaño known for their extensive art collections. In Mexico, where theft of religious art has risen by an estimated 600 percent over the last two decades, looted religious artifacts have become a particularly attractive target for criminal groups. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates an average of 357 cultural objects are stolen and exported from Mexico each year.
The lack of information about the previous owners of the Mexican artworks makes it impossible to say whether they were personally connected to art theft or if they were collectors who obtained the pieces through illegal means. However, the rising incidence of art theft in Mexico and the potential value of the pieces suggest that art trafficking may have become another income source, as well as a possible money laundering activity, for Mexico's ever-evolving organized crime groups.