'Under siege': armed bank robbers launch assault on Brazilian city

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
·3-min read

Bank robbers armed with military-grade weapons have laid siege to a city in southern Brazil, torching vehicles, kidnapping government workers, blowing up a bank and engaging in a two-hour gun battle as the mayor begged residents to stay indoors.

Clésio Salvaro, the mayor of Criciúma, told local media he first learned of the “surreal” offensive on social media just after midnight on Tuesday.

Minutes earlier, a convoy of luxury vehicles including Audis, Land Rovers and BMWs had cruised into town carrying a platoon of masked raiders whose armoury included 50-calibre rifles capable of downing helicopters.

As dozens of apparently highly trained gunmen swept through the city and shots rang out, Salvaro published a video plea to the city’s 220,000 residents.

“At this moment the city remains under siege. This is an attack of large proportions, [involving] very well-trained criminals,” he said. “So, right now, the mayor of Criciúma is asking you to remain in your homes – do not go out. Be careful and shelter in your home ... Tell your relatives and friends that nobody must leave their homes. Let’s let the police do their job.”

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Geovânia de Sá, a local congresswoman, said “a situation of war” was unfolding in the city and one journalist compared the strike to a western film. The news website G1 called the attack “a dawn of terror”.

Mobile phone videos shot by panicked residents offered a glimpse of the mayhem. In one, a female narrator sobs as she films armed men moving through the streets and shots echoing in the darkness. “For the love of God,” she can be heard saying.

Mauricio Vefago, a local businessman, told the Band TV network he had locked himself inside his shop when the shooting began at about midnight. “It was practically the whole city. The sound of gunfire was coming from all sides,” he said.

Speaking to the GloboNews television network, Salvaro said that after driving into town the criminals had “completely besieged” the city centre, blocking all entry points, including a tunnel linking Criciúma with a neighbouring city. Six city hall workers who had been painting zebra crossings at the time of the action were briefly held hostage. Spike strips were reportedly used to hinder the police response.

The gang’s targets appeared to be local banks, at least one of which was reportedly blown up with explosives.

About two and a half hours after the assault began, the criminals disappeared into the night, driving south in a 10-vehicle convoy. During their escape large sums of money were left behind, with one social media video showing locals scrambling to collect the notes on the ground. The G1 website said four locals were arrested after being seen making off with 810,000 reais (£114,000) that had been abandoned when the criminal’s fled.

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Victor Bianco Cruz, a police chief in Criciúma, which is about 125 miles (200km) south of the city of Florianópolis, told Brazilian television at least 30 people had been involved in the robbery. “We’ve never seen anything like it. So much shooting. A very well-organised gang with heavy weapons.”

The Folha de São Paulo newspaper said such attacks were increasingly common in other parts of Brazil, pointing to similarly spectacular assaults in the interior of São Paulo state in cities such as Araraquara, Botucatu and Ourinhos.

Some call such raids a 21st-century version of the cangaço – gangs of Robin Hood-style bandits who roamed Brazil’s north-eastern hinterlands in the early part of the last century under the leadership of a legendary highwayman called Lampião.

The “new cangaço” is thought to be largely the work of Brazil’s most powerful organised crime group, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital).