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The thieves tunneled under the thick walls of the colonial-era Roman Catholic church in the tiny southern Bolivian town of San Miguel de Tomave, emerged through the floor and made off with five 18th-century oil paintings of inestimable value.

It was the third time the highlands church had been plundered of sacred art since 2007. Most of the finely-etched silver that once graced its altar was already gone.

"Who would have thought they would take the canvases, too?" the Rev. Francisco Dubert, the parish priest, asked of the 2-meter-by-1.75-meter oils depicting the Virgin Mary.

Increasingly bold thefts plague colonial churches in remote Andean towns in Bolivia and Peru, where authorities say cultural treasures are disappearing at an alarming rate. At least 10 churches have been hit so far this year in the two culturally rich but economically poor countries.

"We think the thefts are being done on behalf of collectors," said the Rev. Salvador Piniero, archbishop of Peru's highlands Ayacucho province. Religious and cultural authorities say criminal bands are stealing "to order" for foreigners.

Bolivian churches have been robbed 38 times of 447 objects since 2009 — of highly stylized decorative silverwork, canvases, polished gold and silver altar pieces and gem-encrusted jewelry, said the country's cultural patrimony chief, Lupe Meneses.

In Peru, at least 30 thefts from churches and chapels have been reported since January 2012, including two this month: Churches in Ayacucho and Puno provinces were robbed of ornamental silver laminate, or gold and silver crowns, earrings and necklaces.

In Tomave, other canvases were left behind, Dubert said, indicating the thieves knew exactly what they wanted. "These churches are being robbed because terrible people want to own beautiful things." Donna Yates, a University of Glasgow archaeologist blogged afterward.

Yates, who is studying the Andes thefts for a global, European Union-funded project, said the hemorrhaging of priceless ecclesiastical art in the region has continued at a steady pace "but it's getting more brazen."