Thieves pull off Brazil's biggest bank robbery

Thieves spent three months tunneling under a busy city avenue in northeastern Brazil to break into a Central Bank vault and pull off one of the world’s biggest heists.

The robbery netted 156-million reals ($67,8-million) from a vault at the Central Bank in the city of Fortaleza, 2 500km northeast of São Paulo, said federal police spokesperson Sabrina Albuquerque by telephone.

The money was discovered missing when it was reopened on Monday after it was closed for the weekend on Friday evening.

The amount taken surpassed the $65-million stolen in 1987 from the Knightbridge Safe Deposit Centre in London, previously recognised by experts as the planet’s biggest robbery. The Brazil heist, however, was dwarfed by the theft of $900-million plus as much €100-million from the Iraq Central Bank in 2003.

No-one has been arrested in the Central Bank robbery, but at least eight suspects have been identified, Albuquerque said.

The heist was similar to one pulled off last year in São Paulo in which thieves tunnelled into a São Paulo company that transports money for banks, making off with 4,7-million reals ($1,6-million).

In Fortaleza, the thieves took three months to build an 80m-long, 70cm-high tunnel from a house they had rented near the bank, Albuquerque said. The tunnel was four metres below the floor of the vault and electric lighting, wooden panels and plastic sheets lined the walls.

The thieves had renovated the house and put up a sign indicating it was a landscaping company selling plants and natural and artificial grass, police said.

“I never saw them selling anything and in fact I never saw any plant or grass for sale in that house,” said Richard Chamberlain, the owner of a bookstore next to the house rented by the thieves, speaking by telephone.

He said he never heard any noise “indicating that a tunnel was being dug,” or noticed anything suspicious.

“The tunnel was dug underneath one of the city’s busiest and noisiest avenues, so it would be hard to notice anything unusual,” he said.

Inside the rented house, police found a bolt cutter, drill, electric saw and a blowtorch, which were apparently used to cut through the vault’s 1,1m steel-reinforced concrete floor.

The thieves broke into five containers filled with 50-real ($22) used notes collected from local retail banks for inspection by central bank auditors.
Notes in good condition were due to be returned to the banking system, while worn notes were destined to be burned.

For James Wygand, a Sao Paulo-based security consultant the robbery “was organised and executed by professionals who knew exactly what they were doing ... this was not the kind of operation put together by a couple of friends over a few beers”.

“It will be very difficult for police to trace the stolen bills because they were old and not in neatly sequenced piles,” he said.

“No one jotted the serial numbers.”

Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper reported that police believe the robbery may have been masterminded by the same man suspected in last year’s robbery of the money transport company in São Paulo.

Moises Teixeira da Silva, a convicted bank robber, escaped from prison in São Paulo in 2001 along with more than 100 other inmates by building a tunnel out.

Meanwhile the Central Bank has begun its own investigation.

“We are looking into several aspects of the crime including why the cameras and motion detectors inside the vault did not function and if the thieves had any inside help,” said Central Bank spokesperson Beatriz Dornelles.

The biggest previous bank heist in Brazil took place in 1999 when thieves got away with 37-million reals (worth about $16-million at today’s exchange rate) from a São Paulo bank. - Sapa-AP

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