The Banco Central burglary
Whether you agree with Nietzsche’s assessment or not it is difficult not to be in awe at the sheer audacity or stupidity of some crimes. This series will examine some of them.
The first such is a burglary carried out on the Fortaleza branch of the Banco Central in Brazil. It was a massive one, some R$160 million was extracted from the vault, of which only about R$20 million was recovered. The Banco Centrale was Brazil’s central bank, responsible for money supply, and the notes in the vaults were due to be examined to determine whether they should be destroyed or put back into circulation. As a consequence the notes were not sequentially numbered, making the haul attractive to audacious criminals and nigh on impossible for the authorities to trace and recover.
Of course, a heist of this nature required careful planning and the gang were nothing but diligent in their preparations. They decided that the best way to gain entry into the vault was by tunnelling and so in March 2005 they rented a commercial property in the city centre and put a sign out indicating that they had established a landscaping company, called Grama Sintética. Ostensibly, its purpose was to sell plants, natural and artificial grass. They even had a smart logo. You might think that their chosen base would be next door to the bank but, no, there were two large buildings in the way.
The tunnel which they excavated was 78 metres or about 256 feet long and ran some 4 metres beneath the surface. Lined with wood and plastic with its own lighting and air-circulation system it was 70 centimetres square and took about 3 months to dig. Police discovered that the gang were no amateurs. They used sophisticated equipment including GPS – after all, you needed to be sure you were heading in the right direction – and the team included experts in mathematics, engineering and excavation. The garden business proved a perfect blind for the excavation work. Neighbours noticed vans going back and forth with up to 30 tons of dirt a time but didn’t pay it too much attention because, after all, it was a landscaping business.
On Saturday August 5th 2005 the gang broke through 1.1 metres of steel-reinforced concrete to get into the vault, eluding the bank’s internal sensors and alarm systems. Getting the money out was no mean feat. The 50 real notes were packed in five containers and weighed about 3.5 tons. But the gang managed it and by the time the bank staff returned to work on the Monday, they had departed the scene and had gone their separate ways. The bank was left with egg on its face, not least because they had failed to insure the money, reckoning that the risk of it being stolen was infinitesimal.
Inside the vault the police found bolt cutters, a blow torch, an electric saw and other tools that had been used in the raid. They also picked up a truck bearing the Grama Sintética logo which led them to the property the gang had used. Disappointingly for the police, the building had been covered in burnt lime to eliminate those vital dabs.
By late September 2005 around seven suspects had had their collars felt, apprehended in trucks ferrying large quantities of money. Brazil is a dangerous country in which to come into unexpected wealth. A number of the gang were kidnapped, including the suspected master mind behind the operation, Luis Fernando Ribeiro. Whilst their families paid the ransom demands, they were killed anyway.
To this day it remains one of the biggest bank heists.