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Bloomberg Businessweek (July 3, 2023)

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Год выпуска: July 3, 2023

Автор: Bloomberg Businessweek

Жанр: Бизнес

Издательство: «Bloomberg Businessweek»

Формат: PDF (журнал на английском языке)

Качество: OCR

Количество страниц: 68


A Bank-Robbing Prison Gang's Grand Ambitions

In the passenger seat of the speeding squad car, Anselmo Cruz adjusted his bulletproof vest. It was just before midnight on Nov. 30, 2020, and the first call for reinforcements had gone out 10 minutes ago. Л tractor-trailer was on fire in front of the military police barracks in the Brazilian city of Criciuma, 130 miles south of Cruz’s home base in Florianopolis. Now his iPhone lit up with a video. A second truck was on fire, this one blocking a tunnel between the two cities.

For over a decade, Cruz had been in charge of investigating major crimes and robberies for Santa Catarina, one of Brazil’s wealthiest and safest states-a destination for the South American jet set, who come for the sandy beaches and luxury condos. But its topography also made Criciuma an obvious target for criminals. With the ocean to the cast and mountains to the west, there were many ways to escape.

As Cruz traveled south, one thing became clear: The burning trucks were just a distraction, intended to slow police from entering Criciuma’s old downtown area. The Bank of Brazil branch, a towering hunk of Brutalist concrete, was under attack. Cruz’s phone lit up again with videos and pictures of men in black carrying semiautomatic weapons. Hostages, stripped of their shirts, had been forced to sit at a crosswalk to, presumably, act as a human shield around the property.

Bank robberies were nothing new for Cruz. In 2017 he exchanged gunfire with thieves trying to rob another Bank of Brazil location in a small town an hour’s drive north of Florianopolis. He took a bullet just below the neck, but police killed three of the burglars. Novo canga^os, as these types of crimes are known in Portuguese, are modern riffs on a type of robbery popular a century ago, in which nomads in the northeast part of Brazil stole from the rich. (“Novo” means new, but there’s no direct English translation for “cangaco”; the original perpetrators were known as cangafeiros, which translates roughly to “bandits.”)

The modern version generally involved a handful of guys blowing up an ATM. Typically they targeted small towns and cities with only three or four police officers, sometimes fewer. By the 2010s novo cangaсos had spread from the northeast to all of Brazil. There were so many that banks began pulling out of rural areas, depriving locals of places to cash paychecks.

As banks improved their security, moving ATMs indoors and shifting basic transactions online, novo canga<;os waned, declining by a fifth in the country’s 15 most populous states from 2018 to 2020, according to the Central Bank of Brazil. In their place, though, came increasingly sophisticated operations carried out by men who seemed like professional criminals, with expertise in areas such as explosives, intelligence gathering and getaway cars.

Now one was happening in Santa Catarina, with a population of 240,000. “With a novo canga^o it was often impulsive....It required some planning, some coordination, but it wasn’t that sophisticated,” Cruz told me. “We knew this was something new.” Jania Perla Diogenes de Aquino, a professor at Federal University of Ceara, wrote in a research paper that these thieves appeared to take inspiration from caper movies including Ocean's Eleven, Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks and Spike Lee’s Inside Man.

Criciuma looked like a military siege. The perpetrators had semiautomatic weapons and a .50-caliber rifle, powerful enough to blast through an armored car or take down a helicopter. In addition the bank was surrounded by apartment towers, which meant that if police started shooting, hundreds of civilians could be caught up in crossfire. The planners of this operation had knowledge of modern urban warfare tactics.

In the aftermath, Brazilian criminologists categorized the heist in Сгісійта as part of a new phenomenon. They called it dominio das cidades, or “dominion of cities,” a way of describing public security forces temporarily losing control. Сгісійта was the largest armed robbery in Brazilian history, with 125 million reais ($23 million) stolen. Cruz knew only one organization in Brazil that could pull off a heist so organized, sophisticated and successful: the PCC, or Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital).

Three years later the case remains largely unresolved, with Cruz still on the hunt for about half of the crew, which he estimates to have totaled 30 people. The money mostly hasn’t been recovered either, though it’s likely that some of it was used to finance a growing, multinational drug-trafficking business. For an organization that began in a prison in Sao Paulo, the PCC had come a long way.

Bу the time Cruz got to Criciuma, it was about 2 a.m. The thieves had left an hour earlier, and the streets were quiet and empty.

Cruz couldn’t believe the audacity of the heist. Criciuma had dozens of police officers, and heavily armed SWAT-style commandos were stationed just a few hours north in Florianopolis. Even with the distance, the mere thought of them getting involved could have a chilling effect: Known as ВОРЕ, the tactical unit has a reputation for extrajudicial killings in Rio de Janeiro, where it began. Robbing the bank could have been a suicide mission.

To help buy themselves time, it seemed, the thieves had surrounded the property with homemade explosives that would need to be defused before Cruz’s detectives could get inside the vault to search for clues. This could take hours.

In addition to the cellphone footage, someone had livestreamed the events on Facebook. Cruz had already watched much of this on his drive. Piecing together the videos and testimony from witnesses, he began to get a picture of how the heist had gone down.

At about 11:45 p.m., as one group set lire to the trucks at the barracks and the tunnel between Florianopolis and Criciuma, another entered Criciuma’s old downtown. Sergio Firme, who works for the city’s roads department, told me hewas with his crew repainting faded crosswalks and lane dividers when he heard what sounded like a motorcycle backfiring. He and the five other workers kept painting.

Then, Firme saw a black BMW SUV approach. It was armored. Two masked men exited wearing army helmets and all black clothing. Firme thought they were federal police, until one of the men told the crew to remove their shirts. They were instructed to follow the man in a single-file line to a crosswalk about a block from the bank, where they were then told to sit. After shooting out surveillance cameras, the gunmen addressed the hostages. “Nothing is going to happen to you," they were told. “We’re going to get the money, and then we’re gone."

Firme sat and smoked cigarettes. Other members of the crew began crying, he said, or whispering prayers to Jesus or the Virgin Mary. He realized, eventually, that they were shirtless to signal to other gunmen that they were hostages. And he figured that, sitting in the crosswalk, they’d block any police vehicles hurtling toward the bank.

Twenty minutes later another vehicle approached. It was a Ford F-250, also black and armored. Again, masked gunmen wearing black exited. This time they took out two suitcases, opening them to reveal ammunition clips, which they gave to the gunmen guarding Firme and the crew.

After about an hour, four hostages were told to walk single file into the bank vault. (Firme and a colleague were left behind.) From there, according to Cruz, they loaded pallets of cash into a caravan of 10 luxury SUVs-BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Audis-all painted black, all armored. The gunmen took as much cash as they could and then threw the rest onto the streets. Once they left, Cruz said, they knew residents would flood the streets to claim what they could, slowing anyone who tried to follow. (Police recovered about 300,000 reais from the streets around the bank.)

An hour later, as the bomb squad began deactivating the explosives, Cruz had to figure out where the caravan had gone-and who was along for the ride...


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