SAO PAULO: More than two dozen heavily-armed men stormed into the centre of Guararema early on a recent morning, rousing the Brazilian town’s residents with the sound of broken glass, explosions — and then gunshots.
Brandishing high-powered rifles, wearing bullet-proof vests, and carrying several kilos of dynamite, the gang pulled up in front of the town’s main police station. It then set upon an adjoining branch of Banco do Brasil, shattering its windows and doors with crowbars.
In a coordinated 3AM attack, police said, other gang members hit a Banco Santander Brasil branch two blocks away. They detonated the dynamite in an attempt to blow up ATM machines and vaults in both banks.
Such attacks have become commonplace in Brazil: Last year, an average of two banks or ATM machines were robbed every day, mainly in small towns without a major police presence.
The spoils can be substantial.
Each ATM has four boxes storing up to 2,700 bills apiece, meaning one cash machine stuffed with 100-real bills can yield up to 1 million reais ($263,000). Bank robbers skilled with dynamite — working quickly — will often blow up several ATMs at each bank or go directly for their vaults.
To combat the robberies, Brazil’s banks have invested in anti-theft technology, ranging from specialized ATMs to facial recognition cameras. When that fails or the costs become prohibitive, they have simply closed branches; as a result, some towns no longer have easy access to financial services in a country that already has a higher proportion of “unbanked” residents than either China or India.
The rash of bank robberies reflects just one way in which widespread violence is taking a toll on Latin America’s largest economy, pushing frustrated Brazilians to elect President Jair Bolsonaro in October on a promise to crack down on crime.
“Crime seeks opportunities,” said Rafael Alcadipani da Silveira, a public security expert at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank in Sao Paulo. “In Brazil, organized crime is very strong, security in small towns is weak and bank raids seem like an easy crime to commit.”
In the Guararema bank robbery, police pursued the gang to a nearby highway, where the two sides exchanged gunfire. Eleven gang members were killed by police.
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