In the predawn darkness last Monday, a group of about 20 heavily armed commandos seized control of the downtown financial block in Araçatuba, a mid-sized Brazilian city in the eastern state of São Paulo. They then proceeded to rob three banks, while the surveillance drones they had deployed kept watch over head.
When the heist was complete they accosted several bystanders, shot a man who had been filming them on his phone, and then bound the hostages they’d taken to the tops of their getaway vehicles so as to dissuade police from interfering with their escape. To further distract authorities and cover their retreat, the gang had already planted at least 20 explosives wired to motion detectors around the city, which then began to detonate.
At the edge of town, the police opened fire at last, killing one female hostage and one of the thieves before the others got away. At least one other person was killed, and one badly wounded by a bomb blast, the BBC reported. So far, no one knows the fate of the hostages, nor how much money was taken in the raid.
“It is surreal and seemed like something out of a Hollywood scriptwriter’s wildest imagination,” Dr. Robert J. Bunker, Director of Research and Analysis for strategic consultancy Futures, LLC, told The Daily Beast. “I can’t ever remember another bank heist incident anywhere in the world where bystanders were rounded up and tied to the fleeing vehicles of the robbers.”
The Araçatuba bank job may have been shocking for its tactics, but it is hardly an isolated incident. A spate of similarly violent bank robberies has been taking place all over Brazil.
An incident resembling the attack in Araçatuba occurred in November 2020, in the city of Criciúma. During that heist about 30 armed thieves planted some 70 pounds of explosives and forced naked hostages to lie in the road, blocking traffic to thwart a police response. They also flung stolen cash into the streets to aid their escape, as crowds rushed to gather up the bills.
In that episode, the attackers looted several banks and walked off with about 125 million reais ($24 million), according to a report by InSight Crime, an investigative non-profit with a focus on organized crime in the Americas.
The most recent bank robbery of this kind occurred on Monday, Sept. 6, when commandos blasted their way into a bank in the coastal town of Salina das Margaridas, just a few hundred miles northwest of Araçatuba. In the aftermath, the Brazilian media outlet Metro1 reported that this marked the 38th such bank robbery in 2021, and that attacks of this kind have risen by 170 percent since last year.
In its report, InSight Crime wrote, “these attacks have grown beyond compare, seemingly becoming a competition between criminals about who can pull off the most dangerous heist, with utter disregard for human life.”
The degree of brutality is approaching the “Mad Max level,” said Bunker, “especially with people being tied to moving vehicles.”
Bunker went on, saying that: “These bank assaults are sophisticated and suggest high levels of operational competence. The planners have paramilitary and/or military training with an understanding of tactical actions, raids, urban channeling, and escape and evasion.”
Since 2015 these kinds of attacks have become so common that Brazilians even have a name for them: Novo Cangaço, which roughly translates into English as “New Struggle.”
The name refers to a “social banditry” movement that flourished in Brazil’s hardscrabble northeast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The original Cangaço sought to battle back against widespread poverty and inequality. It involved Robin-Hood like figures who plagued wealthy landowners, donated to the poor, and pushed the government to jumpstart economic reforms.
“The New Cangaço’s modus operandi is similar” to that of their predecessors, Dr. José de Arimatéia da Cruz told The Daily Beast. The tactics might be alike, but the strategy between the old and new incarnations are quite different, according to Arimatéia da Cruz, who is originally from Brazil but now teaches International Relations at Georgia Southern University.“The difference today is that the traditional cangaceiros [peasant bandits] were fighting against politicians. The Novo Cangaço today are attacking banks and are most basically interested in money for different purposes.”
Further blurring the lines between the old and new “struggle” is the fact that an infamous organized crime group called the First Capital Command [known as PCC for its acronym in Portuguese] has taken up the Cangaço mantle.
The PCC is responsible for several of the major bank assaults in Brazil, and has even struck banks over the border in Paraguay. Brazilian police have also long identified PCC as “the nation’s largest drug gang.”
John P. Sullivan, a former law enforcement officer who now teaches at the University of Southern California, told The Daily Beast that the PCC formed in São Paulo in the 1990s, has a presence throughout Brazil, “and is expanding its international reach.” Bunker estimated the gang to have “over 10,000 members.”
Sullivan, who is also a Senior Fellow at the Small Wars Journal, called PCC “an example of a third generation gang due to its political dimension, territorial reach, and sophistication.”
Those factors have, over time, allowed the PCC to parlay its revenue and influence from typical gang activities like drug running and extortion into what Sullivan called “mega robberies” or “urban bank robbing.”
“Using profits from their drug trafficking activities the PCC can purchase weapons on the black market, primarily from the U.S.,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of International Operations, told The Daily Beast. “The weapons are shipped already assembled, or as gun parts. They are sent directly [to Brazil] or using Paraguay as the main transshipment country. These weapons ensure the gangs will have superior firepower over the police in confrontations.”
Although today’s Cangaço may lack the social overtones and aid to the poor that marked the original “peasant banditry,” the two movements remain united by their underlying causes of inequality and government malfeasance.
“Brazil is still a horrifically unequal country and nothing has been done to alleviate the poverty level, which gives rise to financially motivated crimes such as bank robberies,” Vigil said. “Corruption is another driver, because the poorer sectors have deep rooted anger that also leads to criminal activities.”
In light of this new trend toward hyper-aggressive heists, it seems fair to ask if groups like PCC and their imitators have flipped the script on the very nature of bank jobs. Have they forever changed bank robbery as we knew it?
“What is really chilling about these bank heist sequences is that a town is literally being hit with military precision by a heavily armed commando unit which goes in with overwhelming force and plunders the local banks—then quickly fades away with burning vehicles and IEDs covering the escape route,” Bunker said.
After carrying out even a single successful raid, the group can invest the cash back into its own arsenal, building up a war chest of better equipment and weaponry, which in turn allows them to pull off more and bigger heists. This creates what Bunker called a “snowball effect.”
"Given the apparent success of securing the human shields to the getaway vehicles—to stop the responding law enforcement and military forces from firing upon them—I fear this new TTP [Tactic, Technique, or Procedure] may quickly spread to future mass bank heists in Brazil," Bunker said. “The use of IEDs strewn across the escape route also greatly concerns me as a new component of these future bank robberies."
The DEA’s Vigil agreed. “The bank robberies occurring in Brazil could usher in a new, more violent era involving the use of military grade weapons, explosives, and mass hostages,” Vigil said. “The use of simple handguns would be obsolete.”