Paraguay's Ciudad del Este witnessed scenes reminiscent of war as several dozen heavily armed men undertook a sophisticated and lethal heist operation, which authorities have blamed on Brazil's most powerful crime group.
Between 50 and 60 individuals armed with military-grade weapons and explosives attacked a transportation company just after midnight on April 24 in Ciudad del Este, a town close to the so-called "Tri-Border" region where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, according to Paraguay's National Police.
As much as $40 million may have been stolen according to initial press reports, although the official amount has not yet been disclosed.* Local media have described the operation as "the heist of the century," and described the city as being thrown into a "state of war."
The police press release says that the suspects are "presumably members" of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), Brazil's most powerful gang. Paraguay's Interior Minister Lorenzo Lezcano echoed this accusation during an interview with ABC Color.
SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile
The official account of the events underlines the brutality and the sophistication of the attack. Using Molotov cocktails and nail-ridden bombs, the assailants exploded several vehicles and placed snipers to secure the perimeter while they conducted the robbery of the office of Prosegur, a private securty company that transports cash and other valuable items.
A police officer and three civilians died during the shootout, which lasted three hours and plunged the town into chaos as the suspects used remotes to detonate as many as 16 explosive-laden vehicles placed strategically across the city, reported El País. This allowed the assailants to escape in bulletproof vehicles to a nearby Paraguayan town before crossing over the Paraná River into Brazil where abandoned boats were found.
Initial press reports suggest that the assailants may have split up while fleeing, as a shootout with Brazilian law enforcement left three suspects dead and another four injured in Foz de Iguazú, the Brazilian town bordering Ciudad del Este across the river, reported La Voz.
The Prosegur office has apparently been targeted in the past. In 2015, authorities discovered a tunnel dug from a nearby house that reached under the building's vault, according to El País.
Several recent heists have been carried out against money transportation firms across the region. A Brinks convoy was attacked in Bolivia toward the end of March 2017, and another in Brazil in February this year during which $20 million was stolen. The PCC was also suspected of both these robberies.
Following the latest attack, Bolivia's Interior Minister Carlos Romero called for a high-level meeting with Paraguay and Brazil on April 24, while both Argentina and Brazil reinforced security along their borders.
InSight Crime Analysis
The magnitude of the attack as well as its obvious sophistication, both in terms of weaponry and logistics, is striking. Should the culprits indeed be elements of the PCC, as Paraguayan authorities suspect and as the escape into Brazil suggests, the attack would indicate that the gang is stepping up its expansion and diversifying its criminal portfolio.
Recent violence in other areas of the Brazil-Paraguay border, and in particular marijuana smuggling areas such as Pedro Juan Caballero, have raised the possibility that the PCC is attempting to establish control over drug trafficking routes, while also pointing to the gang's capacity to operate outside of Brazil's borders.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay
However, as Renato Sérgio de Lima, the director of a non-profit security organization in Brazil, pointed out during an interview with Folha de São Paulo, it is easy for authorities to blame the PCC despite the relative lack of evidence to back up such assertions.
The assailants may very well enjoy ties to the gang to some level or another. But this does not necessarily mean that the PCC's incarcerated leadership in São Paulo directly ordered or planned the attack; the gang operates more as a network of criminal cells rather than as a vertically integrated criminal organization.
* Update (April 28): On April 27, Prosegur confirmed that the robbery was the biggest in Paraguay's history, with a total of $11,720,255 stolen.