A statue at the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana in Bolivia. Thieves stole… (Juan Karita / AP )
Thieves have again stolen treasures from a colonial-era church in Bolivia, including priceless 18th century oil paintings.
The Roman Catholic church in the small town of San Miguel de Tomave has has been looted three times in the last five years — and it's not the only one.
Churches in remote towns in Bolivia and Peru are increasingly becoming targets of brazen robberies, the Associated Press reports, with thieves tunneling under walls or lacing the parishioners' meals with tranquilizers to steal while they sleep.
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Since 2009, Bolivian churches have reportedly been robbed 38 times of 447 objects. In Peru, 30 robberies have been reported since January of last year, with chapels looted of jewelry and silver.
Authorities say that criminal gangs are stealing "to order" for collectors in Europe and the United States, where there's a market for Latin American art, the AP reports.
Cultural officials have struggled to keep relics safe, installing video cameras and guards. But poor churches, particularly in rural areas at high altitudes, are left with little more than a simple lock.
"You are left with the kind of situation where you could either try to take all the goods out of these rural churches, which is ethnically questionable because you are taking people's heritage away from them," said Donna Yates, a University of Glasgow archaeologist.
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