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By Gabriel Stargardter
UBERABA, Brazil (Reuters) - Shortly before dawn in late June 2019, a heavily armed crew of bank robbers rammed a truck into the Brazilian city of Uberaba's main Banco do Brasil branch. They left the building several hours later with around $5 million dollars in cash.
The thieves were part of a new class of stick-up artists, known as "novo cangaco" gangs, terrorizing Brazil's interior. Using assault rifles and explosives to turn rural towns into war zones, the specialized crews have netted an astonishing $120 million since emerging in 2015, think tank Alpha Bravo Brasil says.
In a related article, Reuters tracked how laws pushed by President Jair Bolsonaro make it easier for gangsters to obtain assault rifles like those used in Uberaba.
Prosecutors attribute some of the "novo cangaco" raids to the First Capital Command (PCC), Brazil's most powerful gang. The PCC has deep roots around Uberaba, a wealthy cattle-farming city in Minas Gerais state. The 2019 hit, which involved over two dozen gangsters, was masterminded by a PCC boss sentenced to nearly 150 years in prison for the robbery.
Using court documents, witness statements, security footage and interviews, Reuters reconstructed the high octane assault for the first time in detail.
About a week before the raid, the robbers rented an apartment near the bank to surveil their target. On June 27, around 3.30 a.m., they struck. After smashing through the bank's garage door with a Volkswagen truck, one group made for the safe. Another sprayed the street with machine gun fire.
A few hundred yards away, at the 24-hour Drogasil pharmacy, pharmacist Thales Rezende was heating a microwave meal when he heard what sounded like fireworks. Rezende and two colleagues went out to investigate. All three declined to comment for this story.
Outside, they saw two cars with armed men hanging out the windows, firing in their direction. Terrified, they hid in the storeroom. A hooded assailant entered and told them to hand over their phones. They were then taken into the street, where some 20 gang members were shooting at transformers and setting off explosives - a typical "novo cangaco" tactic to sow terror across small-town Brazil.
The assailants said they wished them no harm. "We only want to kill police," pharmacy worker Clauber Amaral recalled one saying.
The thieves told them to run into the bank - no funny business or they would be shot - where they cowered as their captors worked to blow up the safe. Around 6 a.m., the robbers emerged from the smoky vault with pouches of cash, and bundled the three men into the back of waiting pick-up trucks.
As they sped away, shooting at cops and tossing road spikes, the thieves told the hostages to stand in the back of the pick-up trucks and wave their shirts above their heads to ward off police gunfire, before releasing them on the outskirts of town.
In the mayhem one person was killed - a woman shot through the head by a stray bullet as she rode with friends in the back of a taxi taking them home from a club. Two bystanders survived gunshots to the leg. The city's council and fire station buildings were left peppered with bullets
'VERY TENSE' NEGOTIATION
Some 50 km (30 miles) away from the center of Uberaba, in the Sao Basilio farm, Sirlene Rosa awoke around 3.50 a.m. when her phone began buzzing with news of the heist. She woke her husband, Claudeci Rosa, and told her son Vinicius, 15, he wouldn't be going to school in Uberaba today.
Claudeci wasn't too concerned. Uberaba was far, and the farm he managed was on a dirt road, some 5 km from the highway. He went back to sleep. But as dawn approached, the messages on Sirelene's phone suggested the gang was getting closer.
Around 6.20 a.m., their dogs started barking. Claudeci heard a vehicle pull up.
"Open up," someone shouted. "We're the Federal Police, and if you don't open up, we're going to smash down the door."
Outside, 10 of the robbers stood with assault rifles in each hand. With cops in hot pursuit, they were looking for new hostages - their ticket to freedom. They put the Rosas in the back of a stolen truck, along with Claudeci's nephew and his family, as well as two men from a neighboring farm.
They sped off but didn't get far. Around 7 a.m., police intercepted them. A brief firefight ensued.
Inside the truck, the situation was fraught. While some assailants asked the hostages for forgiveness, one urged the crew to accept death and mow down the cops.
Lupercio Peres, the former head of Uberaba's military police, recalled a "very tense" negotiation.
"We had hostages being held by heavily armed bandits," he said. "It was a scene from war."
Eventually, around 11 a.m., the gangsters surrendered and freed the seven hostages, including a two-year-old child. Vinicius Rosa and one other declined to comment for this story. Reuters was unable to reach the others.
Authorities eventually recovered just over 100,000 reais ($19,500) of the roughly 25 million reais stolen that night. Most of the gang members were never caught. In 2020, the ten who were apprehended received prison sentences totaling over 1,500 years.
($1 = 5.1425 reais)
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)