Hostages kidnapped by a gang of Brazilian bank robbers who tied their captives to the roofs and bonnets of their cars said they were told they’d be shot in the face if they didn’t hold on.
At least 11 people were taken hostage and held for nearly two hours.
A manhunt continues for the armed robbers, who struck three banks in downtown Araçatuba city in Sao Paulo state starting around midnight Monday.
A married father-of-two and the son of a police officer were among three people who were killed following the robberies. The other slain person was a suspect.
Around 20 robbers armed with machine guns, bombs and drones grabbed the civilian hostages before fleeing.
The suspects attacked the local police headquarters and blocked roads into the city using burned-out cars to stop reinforcements from arriving, before kidnapping terrified locals at gunpoint.
‘All I could think about is that I would die,’ one of the hostages – who wished to remain anonymous for fears over his safety – told Brazilian new site UOL.
He said a rifle-wielding gunman had stopped him as he drove past on his motorbike.
‘I’d heard a commotion, but I thought it was fireworks. Suddenly, a man pushed me off my motorbike and told me to stop. At first, I thought it was a police checkpoint but then I saw they were assailants,’ he told the outlet.
Civilian hostages are strapped to the roof and bonnet of a getaway car used during a huge raid on two banks in the city of Araçatuba, near to the Brazilian capital of Sao Paulo
A civilian hostage strapped to the bonnet of a getaway car is driven through the streets of Araçatuba following a huge raid by dozens of gunmen
The man recalled that the robbers were ‘aggressive’ and seemed intent on intimidating their captives.
‘If they saw someone peeking from a window, they’d shoot in that direction to frighten everyone and show us they weren’t playing,’ he said.
Speaking to Brazilian news site G1, another hostage described being used as a human shield.
‘They told me to get out of the car, tore off my shirt and threw my cap on the ground,’ he said.
‘I was put onto the bonnet of a car and told: “If you let go, if you try to throw yourself off, I’ll stop the car and shoot you in the face.” I think I have never held on so tightly to anything as I did then.’
The mother of another hostage described a similar situation, saying it was a miracle that her son had survived the ordeal.
‘He was forced to get onto the bonnet of one of the cars and told to just hold on with his hands. He almost fell and died,’ she told UOL, adding that the hostages were freed in a rural area which it took them hours to walk back from.
Video shows how gunmen walked lines of hostages through the streets before strapping them to the roofs and bonnets of their cars as they made their escape – scattering infrared proximity bombs along their route to stop police following.
The Araçatuba Military Police said that Renato Bortolucci, 38, had left his wife tending to the gas station he owned so that he could film the bank robbers escape when he was shot dead.
‘It didn’t work out very well. The guy didn’t like it, no,’ Bortolucci said while recording the video footage as gun fire erupted in the background. ‘I said I was going to exchange an idea with him. I want a slice too, son.’
Marcio Victor, also a resident of Araçatuba, was driving either a motorcycle or bicycle, when the suspects gunned him down.
Victor worked as physical education teacher. His father is an investigator with the Civil Police.
The third dead victim was a gang member who was killed during a shootout with cops in the Araçatuba rural town of Taveira.
Renato Bortolucci was one of two civilians killed by an armed gang that robbed three banks in Araçatuba, Brazil, on Monday. The 38-year-old, a married father of two girls, left his wife behind at the gas station he owned so that he could film the suspects, but was struck by gun fire
The Araçatuba police said Marcio Victor was driving either a motorcycle or bicycle when the bank robbery suspects gunned him down Monday. He worked as physical education teacher. His father is an investigator with the Civil Police
Four civilians were injured, including a 25-year-old cyclist who accidentally detonated one of the proximity bombs while riding past it. He was rushed to surgery and had both feet amputated.
A 28-year-old male was shot in the abdomen was listed in stable condition. A 31-year-old man was shot in the arms and face. He has also been listed in serious condition.
The suspects also shot a 38-year-old man in the legs and arms, and had a bullet graze his head. He is in serious condition.
A 45-year-old was also shot in the buttocks and discharged from a local hospital after treatment.
The fate of most of the hostages, including those strapped to the vehicles, is unclear, though some were freed and spoke to local media.
One woman who said she had been kidnapped at gunpoint later escaped by running into a nearby hotel.
Authorities urged Araçatuba’s 198,129 residents to remain at home, and school classes were cancelled as they canvassed the area for the suspects and bombs, including one that was set up behind a car next to Bortolucci’s SUV.
Brazil – for years one of the world’s most-violent countries – has been devastated by the Covid pandemic under the leadership of President Bolsonaro, who is now facing corruption investigations, plunging approval ratings, and possible impeachment.
A convoy of cars with multiple people strapped to their bonnets and poking out their sun roofs turns around in the street as the bank robbers flee
The country is now struggling to get its hobbled economy back on its feet, with one of the world’s highest Covid infection and death rates, and with just 16 per cent of adults vaccinated.
Meanwhile, violent crime is soaring as law and order have declined – with Bolsonaro himself declaring he will end up ‘being arrested, killed or winning [the next election]’ in a sign of the dire straits the country is in.
Primeiro Comando da Capital: Gang behind Brazil bank heists
It is not clear exactly who was behind Monday’s raid on the city of Araçatuba, but suspicion is likely to fall on the PCC – Brazil’s largest gang which has carried out similar raids in the past.
The gang was founded in 1993 during a game of football by eight inmates at what was then thought to be the safest prison in Sao Paulo state, who bonded over shared anger at a jailhouse raid by Brazilian police the previous year that killed 111 inmates.
Immediately after the football match, the men beheaded the prison’s deputy director and an inmate with special privileges, with one of their heads placed on a spike.
From there, the gang grew to become the largest in Brazil – harnessing popular mistrust and anger at the country’s often-brutal police force – and now boasts 20,000 members, some 6,000 of whom are in jail.
It operates mostly in Sao Paulo state, but is thought to have branches across Brazil and in neighboring Argentina and Paraguay.
In 2017, it orchestrated a huge raid on the Prosegur security company in Paraguay – with 30 heavily armed gunmen using assault rifles, .50 calibre machine guns capable of downing helicopters, explosives, bullet-proof cars and speedboats to get away with some $8million.
They are thought to be the driving force behind a string of similar raids that have taken place across Sao Paulo state since and have become known as ‘novo cangaço’ raids – after groups of bandits that operated in Brazil’s north in the 1900s.
The PCC is thought to organize and plan the raids, but has been known to call on hired guns and ‘sister’ criminal outfits to do the dirty work.
Monday’s raid began when the robbers hijacked and burned at least four vehicles, using the wrecks to block roads.
One was placed outside the headquarters of the local military police – trapping officers inside – while two more were placed on the main highway.
The suspects then moved to the city center where a fourth burned-out vehicle was dumped near a string of banks.
Experts believe a COVID-19 pandemic welfare program for poorer Brazilians has encouraged robbers to plan bold raids in sleepy regional cities where bank branches are storing more cash.
The robbers then struck branches of the Banco do Brasil, Banco Safra and Caixa Econômica, taking an unknown amount of cash.
It was then that they started taking hostages – holding people up at gunpoint before strapping them to the outside of their vehicles.
Bombs fitted with infrared proximity sensors were then scattered along the escape route to stop people following them.
One piece of footage shows two of the raiders planting a device – turning on a green laser which shines a series of dots on the ground which is thought to form part of the proximity sensor – before running away.
Speaking to G1 after Monday’s raid, the woman who managed to escape said: ‘We were returning from a party. They stopped the car and… threw me on the ground, they threw us into a truck, they kidnapped us.
‘We were praying all the way. They stopped us at the bank, pointed the gun in my face several times. I had to beg for my life, get help. I had to escape, otherwise they would kill me.
‘I begged for my life, showed me my waist, they saw I had [no weapon]. Thank God I managed to run away, I entered a hotel. They were heavily armed. They pointed R15, AK 47 in my face.’
The entire city has since been placed on lockdown with police warning that bombs have been scattered through the streets and residents should stay inside.
One photo shows what appears to be a sophisticated bomb left in the street with a proximity sensor attached – meaning it will detonate if anybody gets too close.
The mayor of Araçatuba, Dilador Borges, said police had been forced to stand back due to fear of causing civilian casualties.
‘The police can’t go on the attack, they can’t confront them because there are too many lives on the line,’ he told Band TV.
Security forces have since retaken control of the city centre, but it is unclear what the fate of the hostages is, he said.
It is not yet clear exactly how much money the robbers managed to steal, while the exact number of hostages is also unknown.
One piece of footage showed at least four people being marched through the streets by two gunmen, at least one of whom was firing shots into the air.
A wounded cyclist lies in the street after one of the proximity bombs exploded, badly injuring both of his legs
Gunmen march four hostages down the street in Araçatuba before tying some of them to the outside of their vehicles as human shields
A line of hostages (right) is marched through the street by two gunmen wearing black (visible centre left and top) during the overnight raid in Brazil
Another, taken from a CCTV camera, shows a convoy of cars – believed to be used by the raiders – turning around in the road.
At least ten hostages can be seen strapped to the outside of the vehicles.
Some are left laying on the bonnets, one is strapped to the roof, while others emerge from sunroofs with their hands raised.
Brazil: One of the world’s crime centres
Awash with guns and drugs, Brazil has one of the highest crime and murder rates of any country in the world.
Petty crime – including pickpocketing, purse snatching, and smash-and-grab thefts from cars and shops – is common, according to the US State Department, and occurs in most major cities throughout the year.
More serious crimes – including rape, sexual assault and kidnapping for ransom – are also frequently reported, particularly by foreign travelers who are targeted due to their perceived wealth and vulnerability.
Brazil is also home to many organized criminal gangs, who prey upon huge wealth divisions to recruit members and draw funds from south America’s endemic drugs trade.
Such gangs often operate out of the country’s notorious favelas – lawless inner-city areas that are largely left to run themselves.
In 2018, Brazil had the largest number of murders of any country in the world – on average one every 10 minutes – and was ranked in the top 10 for murders relative to population.
While the Covid pandemic saw murder rates drop in many south American countries in 2020, in Brazil the rate actually went up.
Researchers believe this was in-part due to power-struggles between gangs and members fell sick, leading to them being perceived as weak and ripe for an attack, but was largely driven by unprecedented levels of police violence.
In Rio de Janeiro between March and May 2020, police killed 43 per cent more people than the same three months the previous year.
And in May this year, police carried out their deadliest raid in the city’s history – killing some 27 people, including one whose corpse was posed in a ‘humiliating’ fashion.
The bloodbath came after a cop was shot and killed early in the raid, sparking accusations that the shootings were revenge attacks.
The raid is similar to one that was carried out in the same city in 2017, during which the headquarters of a cash transport company was attacked.
During that robbery, up to 30 men surrounded the headquarters of the military police, blocked it with burning cars, then shot at the entrance – killing one officer.
They then used dynamite to blow up the cash firm’s safe, load up the bank notes, and make their getaway down the main highway.
Two more trucks were hijacked and burned with the wrecks left along the route to stop police from following.
Similar raids have also been carried out elsewhere in the state in what has become known as the ‘novo cangaço’ or ‘new cangaço’ – a reference to bandits who roamed rural Brazil in the 1800 and 1900s.
The original cangaço gangs robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, in return for assistance hiding from police and identifying valuable targets.
The gangs were mostly centered in the north of the country – a region known for its harsh landscape and difficult way of life – and targeted banks and money carriers.
A second crime-wave using similar tactics then struck the region in the 1990s, and lasted until gang leader José Valdetário Benevides Carneiro was shot dead during a confrontation with police in 2003.
Today’s copycat gangs are mostly situated in southern Sao Paulo state, according to a profile published by the BBC.
The raids are largely organized by a criminal outfit known as the First Command of the Capital – or PCC – though they often recruit mercenaries to do the dirty work.
Such attacks typically target small or medium-sized cities – large enough to contain banks holding cash reserves, but small enough that the police force is not particularly well-equipped or trained.
Attackers then use precision strikes backed by overwhelming force to grab whatever cash they can, and escape.
Working in teams of between 12 and 30, they arrive carrying heavy weapons and explosives, attack the local police headquarters directly, then block key roads using burned-out vehicles.
Explosives are often used to break into the bank’s vaults, before the raiders get away in a fleet of high-powered vehicles.
Hostages are often used as human shields, though Monday’s raid appears to be unique in that the hostages were physically tied to the cars.
Police said the ‘novo cangaço’ raids began around six years ago but have become more frequent since.
Before Monday’s attack, the most-recent took place in Botucatu in July of last year when 40 armed raiders attacked three bank branches in the city, destroyed one of them with explosives, took hostages and got into a shoot-out with police.
Bombs were left in the streets to cover the tracks of the retreating gunmen, with what appears to be proximity sensors attached meaning they explode if anyone gets too close