The pictures shocked Brazil and the world. Bank robbers fleeing the scene at high speed in their getaway vehicle, with hostages strapped to the roof and hood. The videos are grainy, shot hurriedly by nearby residents as the scene unfolded beneath them.
But the violence in Araçatuba, a city of 200,000 people in the very west of São Paulo, did not happen in isolation. It is the latest in a series of outrageously violent robberies where dozens of thieves shut down entire city centers, plant numerous explosives and target several banks at once.
In Araçatuba, the attack began early on the morning of August 30. According to media reports, around 15 to 20 criminals descended on the center of town and attacked three banks. Following the attacks, some seized passers-by and took them hostage, while others blocked off streets near police stations and other major thoroughfares, clearing an escape route. Up to 20 explosive devices were also found around the city, police informed, although it remains unclear at what point of the attack these were placed and how many of them were primed to detonate. The police statement even said the gang used drones to monitor the response.
As the robbers fled the scene, exchanges of gunfire took place with military police, and residents shot videos showing hostages being marched down a street and then tied to the outside of a car as it drives down a road with gunshots being heard.
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The criminals successfully got away. Three people were reported dead and five more injured. The first was identified as a local businessman, shot by the robbers as he filmed events on his phone. Another was a delivery worker who was caught in an explosion while riding on his bicycle. The final body reportedly belonged to one of the assailants and was found in a car, but no further information about his identity has been provided.
The attack had many similarities with another brazen bank robbery, which took place in November 2020 in Criciúma, a city in the southern state of Santa Catarina. Around 30 heavily armed men took over the city center for almost two hours, seizing approximately 125 million reais ($24 million) in cash from several banks and taking several hostages before fleeing. Hostages were stripped of their clothing and forced to sit across main roads to prevent police from giving chase. Almost 30 kilograms of explosives were seized from around the city but nobody was killed, with one police officer being seriously injured.
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These attacks have become known as “novo cangaço” (new struggle) in reference to a form of armed banditry that began in Brazil in the 19th and 20th centuries. Until the early 20th century, the northeast of Brazil suffered attacks from groups of roaming bandits who attacked entire cities, committing robbery, murder and rape.
But 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.
And these attacks are not based in the Northeast. Despite some exceptions, such as the November 2020 robberies in Criciúma, most novo cangaço attacks have been focused in the state of São Paulo. According to figures from the state secretariat of public security, the state saw 23 bank robberies in 2020, up 44 percent from 2019. While not all of these showed the same level of planning, two stood out. In November 2020, around 20 men assaulted banks in Araraquara, São Paulo, again leaving explosives behind and exchanging running gunfights with police. In July, robbers blew up a bank in the city of Botucatu and tried to blow up several others with dynamite. Again, hostages were forced to sit in the middle of the road and the thieves escaped with just one of them being killed.
In 2017, a similarly spectacular attack took place in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, near the Brazilian border, with dozens of armed assailants attacking the office of a security company that transported loads of cash for banks.
Brazil’s largest criminal group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), has been linked to several of these attacks, including the Araraquara, Botucatu and Paraguay robberies. While the group is present nationally and in neighboring Paraguay, the PCC has its main base in São Paulo, which would allow it to strike at towns across the state.