In 2005, a large group of Brazilians awaited a branch of the central bank in the city of Fortaleza. They took away tens of millions of dollars. The police were short on them, but some thieves ended up in the hands of other gangsters who demanded ransom from their families. The Aktuálně.cz daily brings the ninth episode of the famous robberies series.
The fifth largest Brazilian city, Fortaleza, is located in the northeast of the country. The metropolis of the state of Ceará is home to a branch of the Brazilian central bank, in addition to its almost three million inhabitants. At first glance, billions of Brazilian reals have flowed through the modern building over many years. It was only a matter of time before someone took advantage of this financial institution’s advantageous location and poor security.
At that time, Luis Fernando Ribeiro and Márcio Rafael Pierre only had minor criminal activity. However, they both suspected that they could do much more, but not in the sense of an honorable life. A bank in the city of Fortaleza, whose name aptly means fortress in Portuguese, kept them awake. At the beginning of 2005, a plan for one of the biggest bank robberies in history began to take shape in their heads.
Schematic of the robbery:
D-Day was supposed to be the sixth of August. However, the event itself started three months earlier. Ribeiro and Pierre assembled a team of at least twenty people. They needed no clever heads, but brute force. They already had the script of the event. They rented a small store two blocks from the bank and opened a gardening business in it. They disguised themselves by selling artificial and live flowers. An unconventional cover for a bank robbery, which makes sense when you look at the following events.
The robbers did not want to enter the bank through the main entrance. In three months, they dug a 78-meter-long tunnel directly from the rented shop, which ended exactly under the main vault. He led at a depth of four meters. The robbers were in no hurry, they worked on building support structures, air supply and lighting. In order to be able to move at least a little in the tunnel, it was about 70 centimeters in height and width. They didn’t have to worry about the noise from the digging, the traffic on the busy street hid everything well.
The store had one delivery after another over the course of many weeks. Witnesses later described that the six men always loaded bags of dirt into the cars. No one found it strange, after all, this is exactly what a gardening company does. “It was a bit strange that I never saw them sell anything. No flowers or grass,” described the owner of an antique shop next door to the shop. “Their boss was very friendly, he even paid for us a round of beers in the pub from time to time,” he recalls.
Tons of banknotes and a meter of reinforced concrete
At first glance, the straightforward action did not go without detailed planning. The choice of the central bank branch itself suggests that the masterminds of the robbery knew what they were doing. The bank in the city of Fortaleza is rather small, but it still holds a decent amount of cash. The robbers also knew that these were not complete sets of banknotes with consecutive serial numbers that could be easily traced. Equally important was the fact that Brazil at the time was in a very bad position in terms of bank security and the performance of police forces in general.
Late in the evening on Friday, August 5, 2005, the last few inches of the tunnel were left. The bank was closed all weekend. By midnight on Saturday, all the soil was gone, and the robbers were staring at the 110-centimeter-thick layer of reinforced concrete that formed the floor of the safe. They were ready for it. No one disturbed them at the bank. They got to work.
The exit of the tunnel in the bank safe:
A few hours later, several of them crawled through a narrow hole into the safe, where a pile of cash awaited them. They were exclusively 50 Brazilian real bills, which today would be worth about $10. First, all the sensors needed to be deactivated, which the robbers were prepared for. Then the hard work began. They had to gradually move five large containers of banknotes through the tunnel. A later investigation revealed that they had manually moved about three and a half tons of cash worth almost $72 million. In the store, they transferred them to vans and disappeared to an unknown place.
Violent death of a robbery mastermind
No one knew about the robbery until Monday morning. The morning shift noticed the hole in the floor and alerted the police. Investigators did not find any fingerprints of the robbers at the scene, but they found discarded equipment used in the operation in their store. However, the gas burner, electric saw and small tools did not direct them to the perpetrators. As well as other tools they discovered in one of the vans. Police files state that the masterminds of the heist had to use complex calculations and GPS coordinates to target the tunnel, otherwise they would never have been able to hit the safe precisely.
The search was fruitless for a long time. However, the Brazilian underworld came into play, in which, somewhat paradoxically, many corrupt police officers also moved. Gangsters kidnapped at least six robbers within a year. Their families had to pay a hefty ransom for the return of their relatives. It wasn’t always enough, and Luis Fernando Ribeiro, the brain of the whole operation, paid for it.
Luis Fernando Ribeiro in an archive photo:
He fled to São Paulo after the event, but did not enjoy the loot for long. He was kidnapped on the seventh of October. A few days later, an unknown man contacted his family and demanded about $200,000. Ribeira’s relatives did indeed pay the kidnappers. However, it did not help him to freedom. On October 20, police found his body about 300 kilometers west of Rio de Janeiro. His torso was pierced by several bullets, investigators found traces of handcuffs on his wrists. Three policemen were also allegedly involved in his abduction.
Some of the masterminds of the robbery were lucky and ended up in prison. Among them was Márcio Rafael Pierre. Over the years, only a fraction of the loot was found during random checks and after tips from informants. The police managed to find only four million dollars.
Photo author: Shutterstock.com, Aktuálně.cz, Wikipedia (Public Domain)
Aktuálně.cz series Famous robberies
The series Famous Robberies, which is published every fortnight on Aktuálně.cz, maps historical and recent robberies that have gone down in history for many reasons. Be it the execution, the amount of loot, or the surprising lack of artistry of its protagonists.
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