Brazil bank raiders dug tunnel for three months

Thieves spent three months tunnelling under a busy city avenue in north-eastern Brazil to break into a Central Bank vault and pull off one of the world’s biggest robberies.

The crime that netted $67.8m (€54.8m) was remarkably similar to a tunnel heist last year in which more than one million dollars was stolen from a Sao Paulo company that transports money for banks.

The suspected mastermind of that case reportedly escaped from prison three years earlier by digging a tunnel.

The money, which was in a Central Bank vault in the city of Fortaleza, about 1,550 miles north-east of Sao Paulo, was stolen over the weekend “by a group of highly sophisticated thieves,” Sabrina Albuquerque, a federal police spokeswoman said by telephone.

The amount taken surpassed the £36m (€52m) stolen in 1987 from the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Centre in London, previously recognised by experts as the planet’s biggest robbery.

Not a single shot was fired, she said, adding that while no one has been arrested, at least eight suspects have been identified. She said she did not know if more thieves were involved.

Meanwhile the Central Bank has begun its own internal 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 spokeswoman Beatriz Dornelles.

The heist took place some time between 6pm on Friday, when the vault was closed for the weekend, and 8am on Monday, when it was reopened.

The thieves broke into five containers filled with 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.

The thieves took three months to build a tunnel 262ft in length and 28ins in height from a house they had rented near the bank, Albuquerque said.

Dug 13ft below the floor of the vault, the tunnel had wooden panels and plastic sheets lining the walls as well as electric lighting.

Inside, police found a bolt cutter, drill, electric saw and a blowtorch, which were apparently used to cut through the vault’s 3ft 6in steel-reinforced concrete floor, the federal police spokeswoman added.

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

“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.

“I am not sure how many people worked in that house, but I would say more than five,” he said. “The man who seemed to be the owner of the establishment, was a friendly person who at times would pay for a round of beer in a nearby bar.”

“He was a tall, balding and unshaven man who judging from his accent was from the south, maybe Sao Paulo,” Chamberlain said.

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.

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.”

The Fortaleza heist was almost exactly the same as the one pulled off last year in Sao Paulo.

Police say the two heists may have been masterminded by the same man – Moises Teixeira da Silva, a convicted bank robber who is at large, Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper reported.

In 2001, Da Silva, who was serving a 25-year sentence for robbery, and more than 100 other inmates tunnelled their way out of Sao Paulo’s now defunct Carandiru Prison.

  • Click to stay connected with more stories like this
  • Sign up here to receive news by email. Once per day, no spam.

Most Read in Ireland