PUEBLA, Mexico – “They came in at night. We don’t know how many.”
That’s how Francisco Vázquez Ramírez, the rector of Basílica de Puebla Cathedral, recalls what happened one day in 2009, when thieves broke into the building and stole several 18th century marble sculptures.
Officials at the church, which was built in 1575 in the city’s historic downtown district, recovered two pieces – sculptures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John – but they’re still searching for the 80-centimeter sculpture of Christ on the Cross.
What happened at the church represents a growing problem throughout the state of Puebla. Officials have documented 207 break-ins resulting in the theft of 818 pieces of art from the state’s thousands of churches since 1999, according to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
The thefts led Catholic Church officials to improve security at their parishes, many of which were constructed while Mexico was a Spanish colony from 1521-1821.
Wealth in the churches of Puebla
With more than 10,000 religious buildings home to countless priceless pieces from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Puebla has become a paradise for thieves seeking religious art.
“I believe that it’s due to the antiquity of the churches, the quality of the artists who left their work there and the high economic value these works have on the black market,” Vázquez Ramírez said.
Vázquez said organized crime groups are stealing religious art – primarily paintings and sculptures – since they often are worth a fortune.
“It’s a mafia,” he added. “It’s a well-organized network in search of money. Nobody steals a piece to give it away as a gift. If they take it, you can be sure that they are going to sell it to someone.”
Juan Manuel Reyes Ortega, the head of Legal Services for the INAH Center in the city of Puebla, said the majority of stolen works are often “found in homes, private collections or in galleries, both in Mexico and abroad.”
In the past decade, authorities have recovered 30 pieces of art and arrested just one suspect in connection with the theft of religious artwork.
Vázquez Ramírez said officials have installed 28 video cameras in and around the Basílica de Puebla Cathedral so it will be monitored around the clock.
“They have been placed in strategic locations and record all of the necessary information,” said Víctor Sánchez Espinosa, the archbishop of Puebla. “There are people who try to hide in a corner, behind the bench, or in the confession booth, and the cameras help us see all of that. We’ve also asked pastors to pay closer attention, to be careful when receiving help from people who work with them. Thank God, reports of these types of theft have dropped in recent months.”
At least 40% of the churches use some type of surveillance equipment, such as closed-circuit TV, Sánchez Espinosa said.
The security systems embedded in church walls feature sensors that if tripped send a signal to police.
Vázquez Ramírez said communities that can’t afford electronic surveillance systems have organized residential patrols to keep an eye on local churches, which have been bolstered by better door locks and window bars.
The improved security measures instituted last year are working.
“The last two years have seen a significant reduction in robberies,” said the INAH’s Reyes Ortega. “In 2010, there were only three cases and so far this year, we’ve had just two that have been reported. But we can’t let our guard down.”
Oversight of the parishes in the capital of Puebla is complemented by local law enforcement, as authorities installed 218 cameras throughout the city.
“We have teams monitoring the perimeter of the Basílica de Puebla Cathedral and other churches such as Santo Domingo and San Francisco,” said Eduardo Vázquez Rossainz, the director of the police’s Rapid Response Center (CERI).
The CERI has a license plate tracking system that can be used in the event a vehicle is involved in a burglary at a place of worship.
“In a few seconds, we’ll be able to know where they are circulating, how many times they’ve been there and even obtain a picture of the vehicle, including its occupants,” he said.
Those in charge of monitoring the system can use footage to detect suspicious activity so future crimes can be prevented.
The cameras have been used to solve an average of 15 crimes monthly – mainly low-level crimes such as pickpocketing and larceny – but none have been related to the theft of religious art.
CERI officials said they are willing to advise priests on how to improve security in their churches, Vázquez Rossanz said, adding church officials also will share footage from their cameras with authorities.
“If something happens and we’re notified at the time, or if during the investigation it turns out that one of our cameras was in the area where the incident occurred, there’s a protocol for reviewing videos, analyzing information and collaborating with the investigating authorities,” he said.