Brazil Hit By An Explosive Wave Of Bank Thefts

Feb 19, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 12:04 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Violence in Rio de Janeiro has gotten so bad that Brazil's president recently put the military in charge of security there. The recent crime wave has many people worried. Those who live near banks have particular concerns, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Dilza Roxo lives in quite a nice part of town. She has a sixth-floor apartment not far from Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain. Not long ago, Roxo was woken in the night by this.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

REEVES: That happened inside her building.

DILZA ROXO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The explosion echoed across town," she says. "It was really frightening." On the building's ground floor there's a branch of the Santander Bank. The blast, recorded on a resident's cell phone, was by a gang blowing open cash machines.

ROXO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Roxo says there were around 20 men with guns and ski masks. No one was hurt, but the attacks badly rattled Roxo and her husband. They're trying to move out, but it's not easy these days finding a buyer for an apartment in Rio in a building that contains a bank. An average of five banks a month were hit in and around the city last year, says Rio's Institute of Public Security. That's up a third on 2016. So far this year, the rate's even higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CLATTERING)

REEVES: The street is completely - there's glass scattered across the pavement here and about 10 shattered windows. There's obviously been an explosion of some force.

That's the scene at a branch of the Bank of Brazil in north Rio this month. Its cash machines were also blown up. Most residents are so frightened of reprisals by criminal gangs they won't talk about what happened. Luiza lives across the road from that bank.

LUIZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The explosion was like a cannon firing," says Luiza, who asked for her full name to be withheld for safety reasons. "It's getting really dangerous here," she says.

LUIZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I dream of moving away." Analysts believe these bank robberies are mostly by drug trafficking gangs seeking another source of revenue. These gangs have plenty of weapons, says Vinicius Cavalcante, a security adviser to Rio's mayor.

VINICIUS CAVALCANTE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Large amounts of commercial dynamite and TNT are in criminal hands," he says. Some of it's smuggled into Brazil from neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia. Cavalcante says the gangs often lack expertise in explosives, so when they blow open a cash machine...

CAVALCANTE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Buildings get damaged and people get hit by shrapnel. Rio has become a deeply anxious city. This anxiety is about more than just banks. A war's erupted between rival drug gangs inside favelas. Deadly shootings happen every day. There's a robbery epidemic. These days, when a thief in Rio demands your cell phone...

BRUNO DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He might well be armed with an AK-47, says Bruno Dos Santos. Dos Santos is a community leader in North Rio. Last week, millions of people were out on Rio's streets celebrating Carnival. Not in Dos Santos' neighborhood. It canceled its street party because of worries about violence.

DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It's sad," says Dos Santos. "That's the only fun we have in our community." Brazil's president, Michel Temer, has now stepped in. Some doubt whether Temer's decree placing Brazil's army in charge of security in Rio de Janeiro state will be effective. Few question the need for something to be done. That much was clear hours after Temer signed that decree Friday, when another bank in Rio was blown up. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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