Explosive bank robberies in São Paulo state point towards a new form of banditism

. Mar 11, 2019
cash machines São Paulo

Armed gunmen surround a local police station, while traffic spikes are laid in strategic positions around town. At the bank, a digger smashes down the main wall before bandits lay explosives, destroying the branch and making off with the loot, hostages in tow. It sounds like a scene straight out of Hollywood, or a particularly challenging mission in a video game. But this is real life, and in the state of São Paulo, operations like this have happened over 200 times in the last two years.

On the morning of February 11, a gang of at least ten armed men simultaneously attacked three banks in the countryside town of São Bento do Sapucaí. The police were suppressed by gunfire outside the local station, while the criminals broke into branches of Banco do Brasil, Bradesco and Santander, blowing up cash machines and safes. There is no estimation of how much money was stolen, no-one was injured, and no-one has been arrested.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The attacks have become somewhat of a regular occurrence in the sleepy towns of São Paulo state. At the end of last year, six municipalities (including popular tourist getaways Campos do Jordão, Cunha, and São Luiz do Paraitinga) were targeted by similar operations: multiple banks blown up, and gunfire at the local police station.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Data from the São Paulo public security department says that 102 such attacks took place in 2018, following 100 in 2017—an average of one per month.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While these attacks are not restricted to São Paulo (neighboring states Minas Gerais and Paraná have also suffered from similar operations), the concentration of cases in the state point towards the concerted effort of local gangs.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Bank robberies were the original </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">modus operandi </span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">and revenue source of São Paulo&#8217;s gargantuan crime gang, the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">First Command of the Capital</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (PCC). While the organization&#8217;s main focus now lies with drug trafficking, controlling smuggling routes into the country from Bolivia and Paraguay and exports from the port of Santos, there is reason to believe the </span><a href=",pcc-treinou-faccao-para-explodir-caixas-no-rio-de-janeiro,70001749150"><span style="font-weight: 400;">PCC is still behind the explosive attacks</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> on countryside banks.  </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The sophisticated weaponry and equipment on show (assault rifles, explosives, armored cars, and drones), as well as the apparent collusion of the local law enforcement (casualties are rare and arrests even more so), all suggest the involvement of a highly organized gang. A 2016 report from the Public Prosecution Service into these gangs included an accusation that members of the police had worked in cahoots with the PCC, giving them useful information about the deployment of local law enforcement so the gang could carry out its robberies. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Recently, police foiled a brazen plan forged by leaders of the PCC to break Marcos &#8220;Marcola&#8221; Camacho—deemed as being the head of the gang—out of a state penitentiary in São Paulo. The prison break plan reportedly involved the assistance of the same bank-robber gangs, and included details remarkably similar to their operations in small São Paulo towns. Their strategy involved blocking escape routes with traffic spikes, blocking the response from law enforcement by opening fire on police stations, while blowing up the prison&#8217;s walls.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">After discovering this plot, the Ministry of Justice ordered <a href="">Marcola and other PCC leaders be transferred to federal prisons</a> around the country, which took place on February 13.</span></p> <h2>The Wild Southeast</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This wave of bank robberies has been given the somewhat crass nickname of the &#8220;new </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">cangaço</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;, in reference to Brazil&#8217;s own Wild West period at the turn of the 19th century. In the arid Northeast of Brazil, gangs of men and women rose up against the incipient government and became outlaws, roving the region and sacking banks. They lived a nomadic lifestyle in protest of the lack of jobs, food and public services offered by the government.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While in many ways savage in their practices, often robbing innocent travelers and raping women, the </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Cangaceiros</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">—as they were called—were idolized by the common man, seen as rebel outlaws against the dishonest government, as opposed to blood-thirsty bandits.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The &#8220;King of the Cangaço&#8221; was a man named Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known all around Brazil as &#8220;Lampião&#8221; (the Portuguese word for lamp, for his renowned ability to light up the night sky with his gunfire).</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While public opinion is less favorable to the PCC and other organized crime gangs, particularly due to their sadistic exploitation of poor youths in the drug trade around Brazil, there is a certain &#8220;Robin Hood&#8221; element to these attacks, stealing from the rich in a country rife with government and big-business corruption.

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